Virginia Supreme Court rules against Centra appeal

By Chris Dumond, The News & Advance – 2/5/2009

In denying an appeal filed by Centra Health, a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia has cleared the way for the payment of a 2007 jury verdict for $325,000 to the family of a man who died at Lynchburg General Hospital.

The court decision could change the way these cases are handled in the future, an attorney for the family said.

Centra spokeswoman Susan Brandt declined comment on the decision.

On Nov. 3, 2004, 84-year-old Leonard Mullins came to Lynchburg General Hospital with a broken hip. According to Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Koontz’s opinion issued last month, the hospital’s staff was negligent in inserting and maintaining a catheter to drain the man’s urine. Because of this, Koontz wrote, Mullins developed an infection.

The man was released to a nursing home nine days later, but was taken back to the hospital the next day for further treatment of the infection. He stayed there until he died on Nov. 21, 2007.

At a trial in July 2007 in Lynchburg Circuit Court, doctors for Centra denied any wrongdoing. The company’s doctors suggested Mullins died from the stress of pre-existing medical conditions such as heart trouble and cancer.

As noted in the high court’s decision, the Lynchburg jury found Centra’s nurses to have been negligent in Mullins’ care and that he suffered from that negligence until the time of his death. Jurors did not determine that negligence directly brought on his death, however, an important legal distinction.

L. Steven Emmert, the lawyer who argued the family’s case before the Supreme Court, said the decision helps resolve a question of when those filing the suit must decide between making a survival claim and a wrongful death claim.

A survival claim, Emmert said, is filed to recover damages suffered by the patient. A wrongful death claim is filed to recover damages suffered by the patient’s heirs. In both types of claims, the person suing has to establish the hospital’s negligence was to blame.

“In a survival claim, the jury hears evidence of things like the patient’s pain and suffering during the time he survived (after the injury and before death),” Emmert said. “If as a result of a defendant’s negligence the patient was in searing agony for several weeks before dying, you can see that that would be a compelling claim.

“A wrongful death claim focuses not on what happened to the victim, but on what the heirs have lost. In that case, you get into things like solace for a lost loved one, or the loss of financial support. You can imagine that the death of a young father of two with a promising professional career would be similarly powerful.”

Regardless, he said, the family is only entitled to one claim or the other. In this case, the jury ruled that the claim was a survival claim.

Centra, however, argued the family should have had to choose which claim it was making before the case went to trial. Appomattox-based attorney Robert Carter argued before, during and after the trial that as long as Centra denied its negligence caused Mullins’ injuries, the family had the right to pursue both claims and let the jury decide which was proper.

Presiding over the trial, Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge Leyburn Mosby agreed. The Supreme Court supported that decision in its January ruling.

“The subtext to this case was the question of what evidence should the jury have seen,” Emmert said. “The hospital argued the jury was hearing all kinds of immaterial evidence.”

In its appeal, Centra argued that the jury was prejudiced because it heard both evidence about Mullins’ suffering and that of his survivors. As proof, the company’s lawyers cited the size of the judgment.

“Centra Health posits that the award is excessive in light of the fact that the injury to be compensated was ‘a urinary tract infection which lasted eighteen days of Mr. Mullins’ life — most of which he spent in a comatose state,’” Koontz wrote.

The justice concluded the characterization of the injury as a mere infection and that it was minimized by Mullins’ incapacity was “without merit.”

Emmert said the decision also suggests that trials like this could be divided in the future. In the first portion of the trial, the court suggested in its ruling, the jury should be asked to find whether the injury in question was caused by negligence.

If the answer is yes, Emmert said, the court suggested the jury could be asked to decide whether or not the injury caused suffering to the patient before death, or if the injury caused the patient’s death later, as a way of determining which of the two types of claims would go forward.