June 2, 2019

The Connecticut Supreme Court held in its opinion to be officially released on June 4, 2019 in a Connecticut medical malpractice wrongful death case that a loss of consortium award ordinarily should not substantially exceed the corresponding wrongful death award to the directly injured spouse.

In the case it was deciding, the jury had awarded the surviving spouse $4.5 million for her loss of consortium claim for the sudden and tragic loss of her husband of forty-five years, and awarded $1.2 million to her husband’s estate for the wrongful death claim.

The Underlying Facts

In 2011, the decedent visited the defendant hospital for routine elective heart surgery. The surgery was completed successfully and without complication. During the procedure, the surgeon connected standard epicardial pacing electrodes to the decedent’s heart to assist with heart rate and rhythm management in the event that he should experience any postoperative complications. In the case of an abnormal rhythm, such wires can be quickly and easily connected to a system that provides a small electrical stimulation to return the heartbeat to its normal rhythm.

The decedent initially recovered well, but, during the second night at the hospital following the operation, he began to experience atrial fibrillation, a common postoperative condition. Over the course of the next hour, his heart rate dropped precipitously, he displayed various signs of serious distress, and alarms repeatedly sounded. Although this was precisely the condition for which the epicardial wires had been installed, hospital staff failed to connect the wires or to contact the decedent’s surgeon until after the decedent had experienced cardiac arrest. Hospital staff ultimately were able to restart his heart using electrical shock, but the lack of a heartbeat for seventeen minutes resulted in oxygen deprivation so severe that the decedent had to be placed on life support. He never regained consciousness. Several days later, with no reasonable possibility that her husband of forty-five years would recover, the plaintiff was forced to make the agonizing decision to terminate the decedent’s life support. He died moments later.

Loss Of Consortium Award

The Connecticut Supreme Court stated: “an award of noneconomic damages to the impaired spouse, awarded at the same time, by the same finder of fact, provides a natural and meaningful benchmark by which we may evaluate the reasonableness of the corresponding loss of consortium award. When the latter is substantially greater than the former, a suspicion naturally arises that the loss of consortium award was the product of sympathy or partiality toward the deprived spouse or prejudice against the defendant. To uphold such an award, a reviewing court must be able to point to evidence that explains or justifies the unusual disparity.”

With regard to the case it was deciding, the Connecticut Supreme Court stated: “In short, although there is no reason to doubt that the plaintiff and the decedent enjoyed a long, happy life together, and that his loss left her feeling lonely and isolated, the record is largely devoid of any specific evidence from which the jury reasonably could have determined that the decedent met her needs for romance, affection, companionship, and intimacy to such a degree as to justify an award for consortium so much greater than her husband’s compensatory award. We perceive nothing in the record that indicates that the plaintiff was so uniquely dependent on the decedent, or derived so much joy from his presence, that her loss of his consortium was nearly four times as devastating as his complete loss of life and all of its pleasures.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court further stated: “the anguish and trauma that the plaintiff experienced upon discovering her husband’s condition and having to terminate his life support are quintessential bystander emotional distress injuries. If we were to allow a plaintiff to recover for those injuries under the distinct rubric of loss of consortium, under circumstances in which she is unable to satisfy our carefully crafted standards for bringing a bystander liability claim, then those standards would cease to serve a meaningful function, and the delicate balance that was struck when we recognized a limited cause of action for bystander distress in the medical malpractice context would be upended. This we decline to do.”

In conclusion, the Connecticut Supreme Court held: “we conclude that the jury could not reasonably have found on this record that the plaintiff’s lost consortium was substantially more damaging than the decedent’s loss of life and all of its enjoyments. We therefore remand the case to the trial court for reconsideration of the defendant’s motion for remittitur in accordance with the foregoing principles.”

Source Ashmore v. Hartford Hospital, SC 20052.

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