On May 18, 2018, the Supreme Court of Alabama overturned a $10 million medical malpractice verdict, concluding that “the facts related to the jury regarding prior acts and omissions by WBMC [the defendant hospital] were entirely irrelevant for the purpose of curative admissibility, were highly prejudicial to WBMC, and warrant reversal of the judgment against WBMC.”
The Underlyng Facts
On September 19, 2009, the plaintiffs brought their then three-month-old son to the defendant hospital’s emergency room (“WBMC”) for decreased appetite, coughing, and a fever that had lingered for several days. Their son was diagnosed by the attending emergency room physician as suffering from an upper-respiratory infection and was discharged with instructions to continue fluids and to seek further treatment if the symptoms continued.
When the child’s condition deteriorated into vomiting, suspected dehydration, decreased activity, and irritability whenever his neck was touched, the parents brought him back to WBMC the following day where he was admitted and referred to the defendant pediatrician, who had an office adjacent to WBMC and had admitting privileges at WBMC.
The defendant pediatrician diagnosed the child with a viral infection and possible acetaminophen toxicity. The child was admitted and his fever subsequently resolved. He was discharged on September 22, 2009, without any accompanying prescription medication but with a follow-up appointment set for September 29, 2009.
The child’s conditiuon did not improve at home. His parents brought him to see another pediatrician on September 23, 2009, who performed a spinal-tap (lumbar puncture) that was presumptively positive for the presence of bacterial meningitis. The child was immediately transported to WBMC’s emergency room and was subsequently transferred to another hospital, where he was treated with an antibiotic regimen and released on October 23, 2009, with the discharge diagnosis of “meningococcal meningitis, hydrocephalus status post ventriculoperitoneal shunt placement, seizure disorder, blindness, and deafness as a result of bacterial meningitis.”
The child’s parents subsequently filed their Alabama medical malpractice lawsuit against WBMC and the defendant pediatrician, alleging that the defendant pediatrician had negligently, wantonly, and/or recklessly breached acceptable standards of care in providing treatment to their child during his stay at WBMC, by failing to timely and/or properly diagnose and promptly treat their son’s bacterial meningitis, resulting in the child’s permanent physical injuries, visual and hearing impairment, and a seizure disorder.
The plaintiffs further alleged in their Alabama medical malpractice lawsuit that the defendant pediatrician was acting as a servant, agent, and/or employee of WBMC within the line and scope of said employment and/or agency, so that WBMC was vicariously liable for the conduct of the defendant pediatrician based on the fact that WBMC allegedly maintained a reserved right of control over the defendant pediatrician.
During the Alabama medical malpractice trial, WBMC’s lawyer asked WBMC’s corporate representative, “Before you came into this courtroom and heard this claim, have you ever heard it proposed or ever heard of the notion before of a hospital somehow controlling or supervising the actions of independent physicians on staff?” to which the corporate representative answered, “No, I have never heard of that before.”
The plaintiffs’ Alabama medical malpractice lawyer argued to the trial judge that the question opened the door to the multitude of other times that WBMC has not only defended but paid money on these claims for doctors somehow controlled or being supervised by WBMC. Over WBMC’s objection, the trial court allowed the questioning based on its application of the doctrine of curative admissibility, i.e., that the question and the corporate representative’s answer opened the door to the plaintiffs’ introduction of other lawsuits involving claims asserted against WBMC based on allegations that WBMC was liable for the conduct of a physician working at the hospital. The trial court did, however, prohibit evidence from both parties related either to the ultimate disposition of any such claim or lawsuit introduced by the plaintiffs’ lawyer or to the merits of the included claims.
The Alabama medical malpractice jury returned its verdict in the amount of $10 million in favor of the plaintiffs, and the defendants appealed.
Supreme Court Of Alabama’s Decision
The Supreme Court of Alabama stated the trial court could have, within the bounds of its discretion, decided that the door had been opened to allow the jury to hear of past vicarious-liability cases. However, the extent to which it opened any door is nonetheless limited: “Specifically, we find that [the corporate representative’s] answer would have opened a door only to the extent of knowledge of the existence of prior lawsuits against WBMC where agency was at issue –- not the additional facts from which any prior claims of vicarious liability stemmed.”
Doctrine Of Curative Admissibility
The Supreme Court of Alabama stated that the doctrine of curative admissibility is a very narrow doctrine: “[t]he additional information disclosed to jurors by the plaintiffs’ lawyer regarding the injuries suffered by patients or the alleged prior misdeeds of WBMC lacked any probative value as to the issue for which they were ostensibly offered –- WBMC’s and/or [the corporate representative’s] knowledge of lawsuits against WBMC based on a theory of vicarious liability — and their admission was error as a matter of law.”
The Supreme Court of Alabama concluded: “In light of the foregoing, this Court concludes that the facts related to the jury regarding prior acts and omissions by WBMC were entirely irrelevant for the purpose of curative admissibility, were highly prejudicial to WBMC, and warrant reversal of the judgment against WBMC. The judgment of the trial court is, therefore, reversed, and the cause is remanded for a new trial.”
Source Baptis Health System, Inc. v. Cantu, 1151117.
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