The Utah Court of Appeals (“Utah Appellate Court”) held in its opinion filed on January 19, 2018 that the defendant nursing home’s efforts to avoid full liability for its nurse’s medication error and her subsequent concealment of that error are unavailing, largely because knowledge of the nurse’s medication error was imputed, as a matter of law, to the defendant nursing home the moment it happened.
The Utah Appellate Court held that as a result, the defendant nursing home cannot point to any concealment as the cause of the resident’s death because there was no concealment from the defendant as a matter of law, and therefore no basis for apportioning fault between the medication error and the concealment. The Utah Appellate Court further held that in the absence of any concealment, the plaintiff’s expert medical evidence regarding causation was sufficient.
The Underlying Facts
While the plaintiff’s family member was a resident at the defendant Utah nursing home, a nurse mistakenly gave the resident doses of three potent narcotics that were prescribed for another patient. The nurse then compounded her mistake by not informing anyone about it, thereby depriving the resident of the opportunity to be administered medicine that would likely have reversed the effects of the overdose.
The resident later died due to the physiological effects of the overdose, and his heir filed a nursing home negligence lawsuit against the nursing home and the nurse. The defendant nursing home conceded that the nurse was negligent in giving the resident the wrong medication, and conceded that it was vicariously liable for the nurse’s initial mistake. Nonetheless, the defendant nursing home contended that it was not responsible for the nurse’s concealment of her mistake, and that the nurse’s knowledge of her mistake could not be imputed to it. Therefore, the defendant nursing home argued that it was the nurse’s concealment of her mistake, and not the mistake itself, that proximately caused the resident’s death.
The trial court agreed with the defendant nursing home that knowledge of the nurse’s mistake could not be imputed to it. The trial court therefore approved a special verdict form that required the Utah jury to decide whether the nurse was acting in the course and scope of her employment when she concealed her mistake, and then potentially to allocate fault as between the nurse’s original mistake and her subsequent concealment of the mistake.
The trial lasted three days after which the jury determined that the nurse was not acting in the course and scope of her employment when she concealed her mistake, and therefore the defendant nursing home was not vicariously liable for her act of concealment. The jury determined that both the nurse’s initial error and her subsequent concealment were causes of the resident’s death, and allocated 65% of the fault to the initial medication error and 35% of the fault to the subsequent concealment.
The jury determined that the plaintiff’s total damages were $1,407,210.68. The trial court later entered judgment against the defendant nursing home for 65% of that amount, plus court costs.
Both parties appealled.
The plaintiff argued that knowledge of the nurse’s mistake should have been imputed to the defendant nursing home and that the jury should therefore never have been asked to apportion fault between the nurse’s initial mistake and any concealment. The defendant nursing home argued that the plaintiff failed to introduce sufficient evidence of causation and that the trial court should have entered a directed verdict in favor of the defendants.
The Utah Appellate Court held “that knowledge of [the nurse’s] medication error should have properly been imputed to her employer, [the defendant nursing home]. It follows from this conclusion that there was no “concealment,” at least not from [the nursing home], given that [the defendant nursing home] is deemed to have known about the error from the outset, and that therefore the jury should not have been asked to apportion fault between the medication error and any concealment. It also follows from this conclusion that Plaintiff’s evidence of proximate causation—that the initial medication error set in motion an unbroken chain of events that led to [the resident’s] death—was easily sufficient. We therefore vacate the judgment, and remand this case to the trial court for entry of judgment for the full amount of damages as determined by the jury.”
Source Lane v. Provo Rehabilitation and Nursing, 2018 UT App 10.
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