Reinstatement of Defense Verdict in Medical Malpractice Case Serves as Reminder to Avoid Evidentiary Deficiencies

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In Staples, the Fifth District Court of Appeal determined that the trial court abused its discretion by granting Plaintiff’s motion for new trial in a wrongful death medical malpractice case. The appellate court’s review of the record revealed that, unlike what the trial court concluded, the jury’s verdict was not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. The decision is a good reminder that parties should be careful to sufficiently establish prima facie cases against those they are up against and ensure their experts are well prepared for trial.

Appellee’s (Plaintiff’s) husband had presented to the E.R. with a rare blood disorder that led him to have a critically low platelet count. The problem raised concerns of life-threatening and organ-threatening bleeds because of the body’s inability to adequately form blood clots with so few platelets. Three medications were prescribed by a hematologist. The decedent had an adverse reaction to one of them and eventually its administration was discontinued. The nurse conceded to never administering one of the other medications. Platelet transfusion was only recommended in the event of a “life-threatening hemorrhage” and was never prescribed. The decedent was found unresponsive the following morning and was pronounced dead later that day due to an acute cerebral hemorrhage from thrombocytopenia. The nurse and treating physicians were sued.

Experts testified for both sides, and all agreed that the prescribed medications would take at least twenty-four hours to take effect. Since Mr. Staples suffered the hemorrhage and was brain dead in less than twenty-four hours after presenting to the hospital, the experts agreed that platelets were the only treatment that could have saved him. However, the experts disagreed as to the propriety of ordering a platelet transfusion upon admission.

The jury returned a defense verdict. Appellee then filed a motion for a new trial, claiming the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The trial court agreed, finding that the Plaintiff’s expert witnesses were “clearly more credible than Defendants’ expert witnesses,” who only gave more general opinions.

The appellate court found that the case turned on whether the doctors should have ordered a platelet transfusion, and the administration of other medications was irrelevant to decedent’s cause of death. According to the appellate court, sufficient record evidence existed for the verdict to stand. Specifically, the nurse’s actions could not have caused the decedent’s death, and as for the doctors’ actions, the defense expert hematologist sufficiently testified on the issue of platelets and applied his opinions on the standard of care and causation.

Moreover, the appellate court found that the defense expert’s inability to answer certain questions from memory at trial was inconsequential. In reaching that opinion, the court explained that while the “effort to discredit an expert by testing his memory regarding factual minutia in the case may be a permissible trial tactic, it does not demonstrate that an expert lacks knowledge of the ‘hematological intricacies of the case.’” Despite the failure to recall case details at trial not affecting the appellate court’s decision, it likely contributed to the trial court’s belief that Defendants’ experts were less credible than Plaintiff’s and determination that a new trial should be granted. Therefore, litigants should be conscious of experts’ ability to present well at trial.

Citation: Hashmi-Alikhan, M.D. et. al. v. Staples, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D685a (Fla. 5th DCA  March 29, 2018).

(This post was prepared by Karina D. Rodrigues, Esq. For more information, please contact Karina at kdr@kulaw.com or 954-522-6601).