Pennsylvania Appellate Court Revives Legal Malpractice Case Arising From Two Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

In a legal malpractice case decided by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (“Pennsylvania Appellate Court”) on March 30, 2020, the defendant Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawyer and his law firm had represented the plaintiffs in two Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawsuits: one as a result of a sponge that was left behind during the plaintiff’s cesarean section in 1993 (“Garmin I”) (following that surgery, the plaintiff experienced abdominal pain that her doctors attributed to a uterine fibroid. During a myomectomy on September 18, 1997, a surgical procedure to remove the fibroid, the sponge was discovered in her left lower abdomen. An abscess had formed around the sponge) and the second against the physicians and hospital involved in the 1997 myometomy when the first sponge was removed, alleging that the defendants negligently left a second sponge during the 1997 or 1999 surgeries, or they were negligent in failing to timely discover and remove it (“Garmin II”).

In Garmin I, the Pennsylvania medical malpractice jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them $521,588.68 in damages, which was paid by the defendants.

During the course of discovery in Garmin II, an expert retained by the plaintiffs opined that the source of the second retained sponge was the first surgery performed in 1993. The plaintiffs sought permission to amend their complaint more than three years after the discovery of the second sponge to add allegations that the Garman I defendants were negligent in leaving behind this second sponge. Despite an objection by these defendants that the amendment was barred by the statute of limitations, the trial court granted leave to amend.

The Garmin II jury awarded the plaintiffs damages in the amount of $735,000, soley against the same defendants as in Garmin I. The defendants appealed, and the Pennsylvania Appellate Court in Garmin II held that the trial court erred in permitting the amended complaint, which added a new cause of action for negligence arising from the 1993 surgery, after the expiration of the statute of limitations. The Pennsylvania Appellate Court in Garmin II vacated the judgment and dismissed all claims related to the 1993 surgery, but affirmed the judgment with respect to the jury’s findings of no negligence on the part of the other defendants with regard to the 1997 and 1999 surgeries.

The plaintiffs subsequently filed their legal malpractice lawsuit against their Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawyer, alleging that their lawyer negligently failed to timely seek amendment of the Garman II complaint to assert negligence claims against the defendants for their negligence during the 1993 C-section, which resulted in the loss of their $735,000 verdict. Prior to trial, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the legal malpractice defendants, holding that the one satisfaction rule and the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel apply to render the judgment in Garman II uncollectible. The plaintiffs filed an appeal.

Pennsylvania Appellate Court Opinion

The Pennsylvania Appellate Court held: “We conclude that Garman I and II were different causes of action for distinct negligence, injuries, and damages. Although the conduct determined to be negligent was similar in both cases, the acts were separate and the issues surrounding the negligence in each case were not the same. In Garman I, the cause of action was one in negligence solely against Raschid and Chambersburg Hospital for injuries sustained due to a retained sponge in the lower left quadrant of the abdomen, the surgery to remove it, and the pain and suffering associated with the abscess and its aftermath. In contrast, Garman II was a suit commenced against multiple medical defendants almost a decade later for damages associated with a surgical sponge discovered in 2006 in the right upper quadrant of Mrs. Garman’s abdomen, the origin of which was at issue. The injuries resulting from the 2006 sponge were separate and distinct from the injuries caused by the first sponge, and flowed from the second sponge’s adherence to Mrs. Garman’s bowel and the need to resect the bowel to remove it. The trial court in Garman II specifically limited damages to those caused by the second sponge.”

“We find that the factual allegations in Garman I and II were not the same, different evidence was necessary to prove each case, and compensation was sought for separate and distinct injuries. Further undercutting the notion that the causes of action were identical is our determination in the prior appeal in Garman II that the amended complaint added a new cause of action against Raschid and Chambersburg Hospital for their negligence in leaving behind the second sponge during the 1993 surgery. Garman v. Heine, supra at 12 (unpublished memorandum). The discovery rule applied to that cause of action, and the statute of limitations in that action only began to run on May 23, 2006, when the second sponge was discovered. Id. at 8-12. We concluded that it was only at that juncture that the injury or its cause was known or knowable.”

“Thus, we hold that the cause of action arising in 2006 upon discovery of a retained surgical sponge of unknown origin in Mrs. Garman’s upper right abdominal quadrant was distinct from the cause of action that arose in 1997 for damages related to the sponge in her left lower abdomen.”

“Garman I did not resolve the issue of whether Raschid and Chambersburg Hospital nurses deviated from the standard of care in leaving behind the sponge discovered in 2006. Obviously, then, the Garmans did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate in Garman I the ultimate and controlling issues surrounding the negligent retention of the second sponge, as its existence was unknown and unknowable to them at that time … Garman II presented many issues that were not present in Garman I, including: (1) whether the defendant physicians and hospital staffs from the 1993, 1997, or 1999 surgeries were the cause of the retained sponge discovered in 2006; (2) whether the subsequent treating defendant physicians and hospitals were negligent in failing to timely discover and remove the second sponge; and (3) whether the negligence of Raschid and Chambersburg Hospital was the factual cause of the bowel-related injury sustained by Mrs. Garman due to the presence of the second retained sponge. Hence, the doctrine of collateral estoppel would not have precluded litigation of these issues in Garman II, and would not have entirely barred recovery.”

“For all of these reasons, we conclude that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel did not preclude recovery in Garman II for the separate and distinct injury and damages caused by the second retained surgical sponge.”

“Nor does the “one satisfaction rule,” the proposition that “for the same injury, an injured party may have but one satisfaction[,]” preclude recovery for the claims in Garman II … We find that the Garmans were compensated in Garman I for the injuries and damages, past and future, proximately caused by the negligently retained sponge discovered in 1997. We do not believe the Garman I jury could have contemplated a separate, yet-to-be-discovered sponge and attendant bowel injury when it fashioned its damage award for future pain and suffering. Indeed, such injuries and damages were unforeseeable and speculative. The payment of the judgment in Garman I represented satisfaction for the injury and damages attributed only to the first sponge, including any future injuries or damages flowing from the negligent retention of that sponge. The injuries and damages resulting from the second sponge are separate and severable.”

Source Garmin v. Angino, 2020 PA Super 75.

If you or a loved one were injured (or worse) as a result of the medical negligence in Pennsylvania or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a local medical malpractice lawyer in Pennsylvania or in your state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 14th, 2020 at 5:27 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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