October 27, 2020

The Supreme Court of North Carolina (“North Carolina Supreme Court”) held in its opinion dated September 25, 2020 in a North Carolina medical malpractice case, “we conclude that (1) the trial court did not err by denying defendant’s motion for a directed verdict on pain and suffering damages; (2) plaintiff was not required to plead a claim for administrative negligence separate from medical negligence; (3) defendant is not entitled to a new trial; and (4) the trial court did not err by granting plaintiff’s motion for a directed verdict on contributory negligence.”

The Underlying Facts

The decedent had chest pain that was radiating down both of his arms and causing tingling and numbness. An ambulance was called and the EMS personnel performed an electrocardiogram which showed a normal sinus rhythm. EMS gave the decedent an I.V., four baby aspirin, and sublingual nitroglycerin, and notified the defendant hospital that they were bringing him in as a chest pain patient. A few hours after arriving in the emergency room, the decedent was discharged. Later that evening, his wife found him unresponsive in their home after he suffered a heart attack. The decedent could not be resuscitated by EMS and he was pronounced dead on the scene.

The plaintiff and defendant disputed whether the case involved two theories of medical negligence or two separate claims of medical and administrative negligence. The plaintiff argued that the original Complaint contained both allegations that the defendant did not meet the standard of care in “the delivery and provision of medical care” and allegations that the defendant “failed to comply with its corporate duty or administrative duty.” The plaintiff argued that both of these theories were part of the same medical negligence claim under N.C.G.S. § 90-21.11(2) (2011). The defendant argued, however, that only the first theory of medical negligence was alleged in the original Complaint and then proceeded to object throughout the trial that the plaintiff had not pled a separate administrative negligence claim.

The plaintiff’s theory of negligence at trial rested on the “hand-off” between EMS and the defendant hospital which resulted in neither the EMS snapshot, nor the information contained within it—including the decedent’s chief complaint of chest pain and the fact that he was treated with aspirin and nitroglycerin—being given or communicated to his treating physician. The North Carolina medical malpractice jury returned verdicts finding that the decedent’s death was caused by the defendant’s (1) negligence and (2) negligent performance of administrative duties. The jury awarded the plaintiff $6,130,000 in total damages: $680,000 in economic damages and $5,500,000 in non-economic damages.

The defendant filed a motion for either judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or for a new trial, which the trial court denied. The defendant then appealed.

North Carolina Supreme Court Opinion

The North Carolina Supreme Court held that the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony presented sufficient evidence of pain and suffering (the plaintiff’s expert cardiologist testified during trial that the decedent “more likely than not . . . would have got chest pain again” before his death). The North Carolina Supreme Court further held that the plaintiff did properly plead breaches of administrative duties as a theory underlying the overall claim of medical negligence (in a 2011 amendment to N.C.G.S. § 90-21.11, “the legislature created a distinct cause of action for administrative negligence that must be separately and specifically pled”). The North Carolina Supreme Court concluded “[b]ecause we conclude that the 2011 amendment to N.C.G.S. § 90-21.11 did not create a new cause of action or a new pleading requirement for a medical negligence claim like this one, we do not agree that plaintiff was required to plead a separate claim for administrative negligence here. We further conclude that plaintiff did properly plead breaches of administrative duties as a theory underlying the overall claim of medical negligence … the 2011 amendment … intended to re-classify administrative negligence claims against a hospital as a medical malpractice action so that they must meet the pleading requirements of a medical malpractice action rather than under a general negligence theory”).

The North Carolina Supreme Court also held that the trial court did not err in granting plaintiff’s motion for a directed verdict on defendant’s claim of contributory negligence (“gross negligence is a higher degree of negligence than ordinary negligence, and [ ] wilful and wanton and reckless conduct is still a higher degree of negligence or a greater degree of negligence than the negligence of gross negligence, so much so that in the wilful, wanton, and reckless conduct, the matter of contributory negligence, which might otherwise be interposed as a defense, is wiped out … Here, the jury found that defendant’s conduct in providing medical care to [the decedent] was “in reckless disregard of the rights and safety of others.” Defendant did not challenge this finding. Accordingly, defendant’s “reckless conduct . . . wipe[s] out” any alleged defense of contributory negligence”).

Source Savino v. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, No. 18PA19.

If you or a loved one may have been injured as a result of medical negligence in North Carolina, you should promptly find a North Carolina medical malpractice lawyer who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a North Carolina medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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