In its opinion dated November 7, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) remanded a federal judge’s nearly $30 million medical malpractice verdict under the Federal Tort Claims Act in favor of the plaintiff, finding that the federal judge had failed to properly consider the plaintiff’s comparative negligence in causing his own injuries.
The Underlying Facts
For four years, nurse practitioner Denise Jordan (“Jordan”) treated Kevin Clanton (“Clanton”) for severe hypertension. Jordan, an employee of the U.S. Public Health Service, failed to properly educate Clanton about his disease or to monitor its advancement. Clanton’s hypertension eventually developed into Stage V kidney disease requiring dialysis and a transplant.
Clanton sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act for Jordan’s negligent care. After a five-day bench trial, the district court found the United States liable, determining that Clanton had not contributed at all to his own injuries, noting that Clanton did not understand why it was so important to take his medication and to attend all appointments. The federal judge awarded Clanton nearly $30 million in damages.
The United States argued on appeal that the federal district court judge had failed to apply the correct legal standard when it evaluated Clanton’s comparative negligence. Because Jordan treated Clanton in Illinois, Illinois tort law applies. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). Under Illinois law, courts must apply the reasonable-person standard, an objective test that asks whether the plaintiff used that degree of care which an ordinarily careful person would have used under like circumstances.
The Federal Appellate Court stated that the district court failed to articulate that standard—or to cite to any legal authority at all—in its discussion of Clanton’s comparative negligence. The Federal Appellate Court stated that the district court focused its assessment of Clanton’s negligence on his own limited understanding of his condition (i.e., because Clanton didn’t understand the seriousness of his severe hypertension, he did not act negligently when he missed medical appointments or when he failed to take his medicine) but Clanton’s subjective understanding does not properly end the inquiry: Illinois law requires the court to take the additional step of comparing Clanton’s understanding of his condition to that of a reasonable person in his situation.
The Federal Appellate Court stated that Clanton was in the position of a person whose caregiver had failed to provide information about the severity of his condition yet he also had a few external clues that he was seriously unwell. For example, two employment-related physicals showed that he had dangerously high blood pressure. The Federal Appellate Court held that the district court must determine how a reasonable person in the same position would have acted and compare Clanton’s behavior to that objective standard of care: “We vacate the judgment and remand to the district court so that it can assess Clanton’s comparative negligence under Illinois’s reasonable-person standard.”
Source Clanton v. United State Of America, No. 18-3060.
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