July 17, 2021

The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Divison (“New Jersey Appellate Court”) held in its decison dated June 28, 2021: “we are satisfied that a determination to the appropriate standard of care, and any deviation, related to Knight’s transfer of plaintiff, involved an “assessment of a myriad of factors” that are “beyond the ken of the average juror” … We agree with Judge Vena that Knight’s duties were not a matter of “common sense,” and that a jury could not determine those obligations without the assistance of an expert … Of the expert reports that plaintiff produced in the summary judgment motion record, plaintiff does not contend that Valentine and Dr. Berlin offered opinions pertaining to a rehabilitation assistant’s standard of care during a transfer of a disabled patient.”

The Underlying Facts

The plaintiff was a patient at the defendants’ rehabilitation facility between April 3, 2014 and April 17, 2014, while recovering from right total knee replacement surgery. During her stay, the plaintiff used either a wheelchair or walker. On or around April 4, 2014, Lisa Knight, a rehabilitation assistant, was assisting the plaintiff from her wheelchair to the toilet, when the plaintiff claims Knight improperly pushed her causing her knee to buckle, resulting in a tear to her patellar tendon.

The plaintiff filed a seven-count complaint, which she later amended, alleging that the defendants violated their obligations under the Nursing Home Act, N.J.S.A. 30:13-1 to -19, and corresponding state and federal rules and regulations. She also claimed the defendants were negligent during and after the April 4, 2014 incident, and that they breached their contract with her to receive “quality care” in compliance with her statutory rights as a patient. She specifically alleged that the defendants had a duty to exercise reasonable care, “the degree of care being in proportion to [plaintiff’s] known physical and mental ailments” and that “[d]efendants were bound to exercise that degree of care, skill[,] and diligence used by . . . nursing homes . . . in the community.”

The plaintiff submitted an affidavit of merit dated August 25, 2016 from Rose Marie Valentine, R.N., L.N.H.A., a registered nurse and licensed nursing home administrator. Valentine opined there was a reasonable probability that the “care, skill, or knowledge exercised or exhibited in the treatment, practice, or work” of the defendants towards the plaintiff fell outside professional treatment standards. She did not, however, address whether Knight’s assistance in transferring the plaintiff deviated from accepted standards of care.

The plaintiff also submitted an expert report prepared by Burgess Lee Berlin, M.D., P.A., in which he concluded that the plaintiff tore her patellar tendon as a consequence of the April 4, 2014 incident, resulting in subsequent surgeries, chronic pain, and swelling.

The trial court judge concluded that the plaintiff could not establish a negligence claim “without expert testimony as to what [the applicable] duty of care was and how it was breached.” The judge acknowledged that the defendants had procedures on how to correctly transfer a patient, but without an expert to address any violation of the appropriate standard of care, it would be “impossible” for the jury to address that critical issue. The plaintiff appealed.

Georgia Appellate Court Opinion

The Georgia Appellate Court stated: “Jurors would be unfamiliar with the type and extent of training rehabilitation assistants receive, or the factors necessary to correctly evaluate the amount of assistance required. As Knight described, such an assessment required her to consider multiple factors including information provided by the attending nurse, data contained on a patient’s coded wristband, and the type of mobility device used by a patient. We conclude in such circumstances an expert was necessary to explain whether the transfer and force used by Knight, and as described by plaintiff, deviated from the applicable standard of care.”

Source Schwartz v. Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation and Select Medical Corporation, Docket No. A-1794-19.

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