On July 25, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld a $6.5 million verdict for inadequate prenatal care that led to the premature birth and severe and permanent injuries suffered by a newborn. The Washington, D.C. medical malpractice claim alleged that on March 5, 1987, the woman was between 27 and 28 weeks pregnant when she first visited a public health clinic administered by the District of Columbia, for prenatal care. An obstetrician employed by the clinic examined the woman and ordered a routine urinalysis and urine culture screen for asymptomatic bacteria (“ASB”).
On March 9, 1987, the urinalysis was reported as a 2+ on a four-point scale (a “0” on the scale is considered normal and indicates bacteria-free urine whereas a 4 suggests an abnormally high amount of bacteria and a serious health issue). Despite the test result, however, the obstetrician failed to contact the woman or prescribe any medication.
On the woman’s next visit to the clinic on April 2, 1987, the obstetrician failed to advise the woman regarding the urinalysis result and failed to place her on any medications (the clinic had not received the urine culture lab report). The obstetrician failed to order further medical testing at that time. The woman was scheduled to return to the clinic two weeks later.
Unfortunately, the woman began experiencing severe cramping and started having contractions before her next clinic appointment. She went to a hospital emergency room where she was told that she was in labor, had high levels of bacteria, protein, and blood in her urine, and that her white-blood-cell count was abnormally high. She delivered her premature baby the following day. Shortly after his birth, the newborn suffered severe problems, including infection, seizures, oxygen deprivation, underdeveloped lungs, brain hemorrhaging, and brain damage. He developed cerebral palsy at about one year of age. Evidence introduced during the medical malpractice trial indicated that his IQ was 41, he had limited language and fine motor skills, and he was unable to sit up, stand, walk, or feed himself.
The D.C. medical malpractice case was filed in late 2007 and alleged that the clinic obstetrician had failed to assess, diagnose, and treat the woman’s ASB, which caused her child’s severe brain damage and cerebral palsy. The trial was held in October 2010. The obstetrician defended the lawsuit by alleging that he did not breach the applicable standard of care in treating the woman, that the child’s injuries were not the result of any negligence committed by him, and that the woman waited too long to file her medical malpractice lawsuit.
While the medical malpractice lawsuit was filed almost twenty years after the obstetrician first treated the woman, D.C. Code §§ 12-301, -302 (2001 & Supp. 2012) provides for the tolling of the statute of limitations for a minor until he becomes an adult and indefinitely for someone who is non compos mentis. Despite the D.C. statute, the obstetrician argued that the plaintiff’s medical malpractice lawsuit should be barred by the equitable defense of laches because the nearly twenty-year delay in filing the medical malpractice lawsuit unfairly prejudiced him (the defense of laches provides that a defendant could prevail if he could show on a particular set of facts that the plaintiff’s delay was unreasonable and that the delay worked to the defendant’s detriment).
After discussing the history of the defense of laches in D.C., the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held, “we conclude that the line between legal and equitable claims vis-à-vis laches is still sound, and we decline to disturb it. In cases at law, where the legislature has determined through a statute of limitations that the door for bringing suit should remain open for a predetermined period of time, it should not be left to a judge’s discretion to close that door early.”
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals also rejected the obstetrician’s argument that the woman unfairly pursued a “new” theory of liability during the trial that incurably prejudiced the entire defense on liability, holding that “in order to show that a plaintiff introduced a new theory of liability mid-trial, a threshold question is whether the theory of liability during trial was distinct from the pretrial theory of liability … we conclude that [the defendant obstetrician] has failed to show that [the plaintiff’s] expert’s testimony was unexpected or that it constituted an alternate theory of liability. From the outset and throughout trial, [the plaintiff’s] theory of liability was one of a general failure to treat her properly in light of her test results.”
Source Maurice Naccache, M.D., Appellant v. Angela M. Taylor, Appellee. Case No. 11-CV-0392.
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