The alleged pre-accident negligence of a driver not to seek treatment for high blood pressure – ultimately leading to a stroke – should not be considered for comparative fault purposes, according to a California appellate court. Plaintiff in this case, Harb v. City of Bakersfield, is entitled to a new trial on this basis, as well as the fact jurors received an unnecessary and potentially confusing instruction.
The case against the city began in late 2007. A neonatal intensive care doctor had just finished a 12-hour shift and was on his way home. As he drove, he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. As a result, the doctor drove his vehicle up over a curb and onto a sidewalk. A police officer responded to a 911 call about the crash, and suspected the driver was drunk. Witnesses had told dispatch the driver had thrown up, urinated on the sidewalk and appeared to be attempting to leave.
Officer noticed he was disoriented and looking for her keys. The doctor refused to obey the officer’s orders. After a struggle, she placed him under arrest. Officer did not note other obvious indicators of impairment, such as odor of alcohol, redness or watering of the eyes, etc.
An ambulance arrived on scene, but a paramedic determined doctor’s blood glucose was in normal range, though his blood pressure was slightly high. He indicated doctor’s responses to various questions were “confused.” Alcohol breath tests were conducted. The first indicated 0.00 blood-alcohol content. One officer on scene remarked, “The machine must be wrong.” A second test confirmed a 0.00 percent reading, at which point another officer deduced the doctor was on drugs.
Paramedic told officers there was “nothing medically wrong with this guy.” He left.
Then, a nurse who worked with the doctor passed by the scene, saw the doctor in handcuffs and stopped. She told officers something must be medically wrong with him and that he should get to the hospital. Another nurse called the doctor’s cell phone to report a problem with a baby at the hospital. The nurse told an officer who answered the phone the doctor was not drunk because he was on-call. She relayed her belief he’d had a stroke years earlier.
On this information, officers transported him to hospital. There, it was revealed he’d had a stroke. Although he survived, the brain damage rendered him permanently unable to care for himself. He cannot feed, bathe or dress himself.
A lawsuit filed by plaintiff and his wife alleges the failure of officers and paramedics to seek immediate treatment exacerbated the effects of his stroke.
At trial, attorneys for the city blamed the doctor’s condition on his own failure to take his blood pressure medication prior to the accident. Additionally, jurors were given an instruction indicating the officer was not liable so long as she was exercising due care.
Jurors returned a defense verdict.
California Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District reversed on appeal.
The doctor was not seeking damages relating to the damage done by the stroke. Rather, he was seeking damages for the exacerbation of injuries caused by a delay in treatment, which would be the fault of the city. The jury was given an instruction regarding comparative negligence, but the court found this was improper where plaintiff is only seeking compensation for aggravation of his condition. Here, plaintiff’s pre-accident conduct triggered the occasion for aid, but it should not have been considered a form of comparative negligence.
Further, another jury instruction indicating an officer who exercised due care could not be negligent was, while technically true, confusing. The term “due care” was not defined, and neither was the reasonable care standard. Plus, the instruction wasn’t necessary anyway, as plaintiff was already required to prove negligence.
Thus, the appellate court reversed and remanded.
Our Palm Beach injury lawyers know that officers aren’t doctors. However, they do have a responsibility to question whether the cause of a crash may have been medical in nature, and if so, to appropriately address those concerns. Failure to do so may be a form of negligence.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Harb v. City of Bakersfield, Jan. 23, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District
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