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Saunders v. Dickens – Florida Supreme Court Sets Medical Malpractice Standard

In medical malpractice cases, the key point to show is that the physician or health care provider in question acted outside acceptable standards of care. Our West Palm Beach medical malpractice attorneys recognize in these complex cases, theories of comparative fault on the part of other doctors or health care professionals are often utilized by the defense in an effort to minimize their own fault. drugscn1

In the recent case of Saunders v. Dickens, the Florida Supreme Court weighed the issue, finding that a doctor is not excused from fault when breaching acceptable care standards simply because a subsequent treating doctor testifies he or she wouldn’t have acted differently regardless.

This is an important ruling because it serves to hold doctors accountable for their actions, no matter what speculation is offered about subsequent care. The health care we receive usually comes from multiple sources, some working in collaboration. Each provider may share fault when something goes wrong, but they can’t be excused for breaching acceptable medical standards simply because another surmises their own course of action would have been the same.

In the Saunders case, the defendant was accused of failure to diagnose, which purportedly set off a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the patient’s untimely death. The plaintiff, the patient’s widow, sued a number of different health care providers who had a hand in his care just prior to death.

Most of those providers settled out of court before the case reached the trial phase. However, his neurologist refused and pressed the case to trial.

The plaintiff lost her initial case after the defendant argued she hadn’t established causation of injury, given that doctors providing subsequent care indicated proper diagnosis would likely not have changed their response or the ultimate outcome. While the appellate court affirmed, the Florida Supreme Court reversed.

According to court records, the patient sought care from the defendant neurologist for numbness, cramps and tingling in his extremities, as well as severe back pain and balance issues. The neurologist concluded the patient’s symptoms were a result of diabetes, though he did not order tests to confirm. The doctor did admit the patient to the hospital and ordered an MRI, which revealed no brain issues, but did find severe problems with a narrowing of the spinal canal.

The doctor then consulted with a neurosurgeon, who concluded a decompression procedure was in order. The neurosurgeon performed this operation, though it did not improve the patient’s condition. The neurosurgeon then ordered a second lumbar decompression surgery, to be followed by a cervical decompression surgery at a later date.

Surgery was postponed when the patient suffered deep vein thrombosis. Once he was cleared, the lumbar decompression surgery was done. However, before the cervical decompression surgery could happen, the man’s condition swiftly deteriorated. He became quadriplegic and eventually died.

As it turned out, the cervical cord compression was the most pressing issue — and one the neurologist apparently neglected to detect. At trial, an expert witness for the plaintiff testified that a reasonable and prudent neurologist would have considered other causes aside from diabetes for the man’s condition. Further, witnesses testified that had the doctor diagnosed the condition properly, the man could have received immediate treatment and likely would not have progressed to quadriplegia.

The defendant doctor presented deposition testimony from the neurosurgeon indicating even if the neurologist had determined cervical compression was the core issue, he likely would still have waited to perform the risky operation.

The jury returned a verdict favoring the doctor, and the appellate court affirmed, citing that causation couldn’t be established, per the standard set by the 2000 case of Ewing v. Sellinger.

However, the state supreme court noted two other districts had rejected the reasoning in Ewing, holding the negligence of a doctor can’t be defended simply based on what a subsequent treating doctor would have done if the first doctor hadn’t acted negligently.

The state supreme court sided with the other appellate courts in this matter, finding that such testimony should have been inadmissible and thus tossed jury’s finding and ordered a new trial.

If you have been injured by medical malpractice in West Palm Beach, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Saunders v. Dickens, July 10, 2014, Florida Supreme Court

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