Articles Posted in Medical Malpractice

Recently, in the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit, a case was decided that effectively laid out the requirements of a settlement agreement. These requirements are especially important because many cases are settled before they get to court. In fact, settlement is often preferable because it saves a significant amount of time, money, and it allows the parties to reach a compromise that they not only come up with themselves, but that is also acceptable to both parties. That way, the parties share the benefits instead of there being a clear-cut loser and clear-cut winner as is usually the situation should a case go to trial.

In this case, an individual was seeking to enforce a settlement agreement with an insurance company regarding a life insurance policy. The life insurance policy involved three beneficiaries; however, it was unclear as to when the money should go to each beneficiary. There may have been a contingent beneficiary. That is, the policy was set up so that if one of the beneficiaries had passed away prior to the money dispersion, then it would go to a different beneficiary. However, the insurance company was unsure of this stipulation, so they did not give out any money at all.

As a result of all of this confusion, one of the beneficiaries entered into negotiations with the insurance company in order to get at least some money out of the life insurance policy. Louisiana Civil Code, Article 3071, defines compromise as “a contract whereby the parties, through concession made by one or more of them, settle a dispute or an uncertainty concerning an obligation or other legal relationship.” Therefore, the parties in this case sought to compromise regarding the payment of the insurance policy.

In addition to defining compromise, the Court also points out that the settlement agreement must be in writing and signed by both parties as required by Louisiana Civil Code Article 3072. In this case, there was an oral agreement, but when the parties attempted to put the terms in writing, there was still dispute regarding the agreeability of quite a few of the terms of the settlement. They created drafts and sent them back and forth, but nothing was ever finalized by way of a signature from either party. The Court recognizes that there are no other cases where a settlement was validated even though neither party signed the final settlement agreement.

The Court also goes on to explain that contracts, which are the basis of a compromise, require that there be a “meeting of the minds.” That is, both parties should completely understand and agree to the terms in the contract. The contract embodies the intention of both parties and if the intention of both sides is not fully included in the settlement, then that settlement cannot be valid. In this case, both sides described other terms that were either not included in the agreement or that appeared, but they did not approve of their inclusion in the settlement. The Court notes that there was no “acceptance and acquiescent from both parties” in this case.

Although the settlement agreement can be included in more than one document, it is apparent that there was no such agreement. It based this conclusion on the testimony of both parties, lack of signature on the settlement agreement, and other communications between the parties at the negotiation stages in this case (such as letters between the attorneys that expressed displeasure with terms in the agreement). Therefore, the Court concluded that a settlement agreement did not actually exist and that it could not enforce a settlement agreement that does not actually exist.

Obtaining settlement agreements can be somewhat complicated because they involve getting both sides to agree to many different terms. However, they are very valuable because they allow the parties to avoid trial and get their conflicts resolved quickly. The Berniard Law Firm is always interested in solving our clients’ problems quickly and effectively.

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The state of Louisiana, like many other states, has very specific requirements that the judicial branch uses to help interpret contracts when the parties are in dispute. Generally, the court likes to stay out of contracts because the right to contract without interference from the government is something that the American society greatly cherishes. The ability to contract is a basic fundamental right that is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court will usually only interfere if there is a dispute or if the contract was in some way illegal. Therefore, it is very important to have a contract that is well written and that all parties understand completely.

If the court has to step in to work with a contract, then it will follow a few select guidelines. The ultimate goal of the court is to determine the common intent of the parties and enforce the contract in that way. In order to determine the intent, the court will look to the contract itself. In contracts that include terms of art or very technical requirements, the court will look to the common use of the word within that trade. For example, some trades include quantity information that is always larger than actually stated; think of a “baker’s dozen.” Even though twelve is technically considered a dozen, a contract between bakers may actually mean thirteen. This notion disregards the fact that in any other contract that is not between bakers, a dozen would equal twelve.

The court will also consider the contract in its entirety, not just a few sections or a single disputed term. It will determine what outcome is practical for both parties and technical terms will be given their technical meaning. In addition, if a word has more than one meaning, then the court will defer to the meaning that will carry out the goal of the contract. Consider a simple example. If a grocery store contracts to receive bananas and they receive plastic bananas instead of real bananas, the court will likely conclude that the other party providing the plastic bananas was at fault because the definition of a banana is commonly a consumable food, especially if it is going to be sold at a grocery store. The contract did not say that the grocery store wanted edible bananas, but the court will assume this information because the outcome becomes ridiculous without this assumption.

The court will generally try to stay within the language of the contract when attempting to resolve disputes. When the contract is clear and doesn’t lead to ridiculous consequences, then external evidence provided by the parties to show an alternative intent cannot be considered. The contract’s wording is therefore very important. However, if the contract is not clear or is ridiculous, then the court can consider some outside evidence in order to determine the common intent of the parties. In our banana example, if the grocery store has always ordered real bananas from this seller and has never requested plastic bananas from this seller, then that information could be considered in the court’s analysis.

The court has a means to determine whether the meaning of the contract is clear or not. Obviously if a term or issue is missing from the contract entirely, then the court will most likely deem the issue to be unclear or ambiguous. In addition, the court will also reason that an issue is ambiguous when “the language used in the contract is uncertain or is fairly susceptible to more than one interpretation.” If this is the case, then the outside evidence can be used to determine what the intent of both parties actually is.

A well written contract will convey the intention of both parties and will define all of its questionable terms so that there is no contention in the future. Sometimes, one party does not think a term in unclear when it actually is, so a conflict will arise. Competent attorneys are needed to create a well written contract and deal with conflict.

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A summary judgment is rendered when a trial court decides that there are no genuine issues of material fact that need to be determined. “Manifestly erroneous” is the high standard under which summary judgments are reversed on appeal. Summary judgments are cheaper and less time consuming than full blown trials; they are a means toward the end of judicial expediency, a goal that becomes increasingly important to our judicial system over time. Despite the importance of this procedural device, many cases do not call for summary judgment. Sometimes trial courts grant full or partial summary judgments in error and are reversed. That is what occurred in the case of Jagneux v. Frohn, which you can read here.

The defendants in this case convinced the trial court that no issues of fact existed that required litigating. Their legal journey was not over though due to the plaintiff’s appeal. The court of appeals applied the standard promulgated by the Louisiana Supreme Court. This Louisiana Supreme Court’s standard initially places the burden of proof on the party that is moving for a summary judgment. The moving party must prove that one or more elements of the adverse party’s claim or defense lacks any factual support on the record so far. The opposing party is then granted an opportunity to prove that there have been facts alleged that support that party’s position. At the time of summary judgment the record is sparse so a granting of summary judgment represents a finding by the court that no facts supporting a particular party’s, in this case the plaintiff’s, position.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision in this case because it found that the issue of whether Mrs. Kling, a defendant in this case, was the driver of the white SUV at the time that it, at least partially, caused the accident at issue in this case. Because there was conflicting evidence about where Mrs. Kling was and whether or not she was actually in control of the car at the time of the accident, summary judgment was not the right choice in this case. The trial court is not to weigh the merits of the case when addressing summary judgment. Summary judgment is only appropriate in cases where no potentially meritorious case is presented by one of the parties.

The following very interesting and compelling question by plaintiffs, and the contingent commentary by the court, is articulated in this appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana: “Does a diagnosis by a doctor rendering a second and correct opinion, equate to a per se reasonable belief that the previous treating physicians committed medical malpractice?”

This question arises in the context of the Second Circuit’s consideration of the plaintiff’s appeal of the trial courts “judgment of defendants, sustaining an exception of prescription as to the malpractice claim filed by Joseph Lee Amos prior to his death and granting summary judgment which dismissed their wrongful death claim.” The purpose of this paper is to discuss the question posed by the plaintiff and the Second Circuit’s response to that question.

On April 12, 1999, Joseph Lee Amos had his first appointment with Dr. Rebecca Crouch: he was experiencing “occasional rectal bleeding.” Mr. Amos “repeatedly complained of similar symptoms in his subsequent visits to Dr. Crouch.” Mr. Amos claims that “when he was under Dr. Crouch’s care, he was continually ‘hurting a lot’ and that the blood was ‘bright red’…The physicians report states that Mr. Amos said that Rebecca Crouch checked down there ‘and (Mr. Amos) was told everything was okay.” His final appointment with Dr. Crouch was on January 3, 2000.

The Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 was passed in an effort to prevent class action lawsuit abuse. CAFA changed the practice of class action litigation in state and federal courts. This change was accomplished by CAFA’s jurisdictional alterations in both the diversity and removal components of the traditional framework of class action practice, i.e. Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In Williams v Homeland Insurance, the Fifth Circuit applied the “local controversy” exception of CAFA to the facts of the case, determining that a class arbitration is not, nor does it preclude a class action. Williams provides a lesson in the application of the elements of CAFA and an understanding of CAFA’s features. The decision also demonstrates yet another unique feature of Louisiana law that distinguishes it from the law of all of the other jurisdictions in the United States: the Louisiana Direct Action Statute.

CAFA changed the rules for federal diversity jurisdiction and removal. The Act enables large class action law suits to be filed in and/or removed to federal court. CAFA changed the numerosity requirement of Rule 23 from by raising the requirement from 40 class members to more than 100 class members; the citizenship requirement of Rule 23 by relaxing the diversity criteria, i.e. any class member must be diverse from any defendant; and the amount-in-controversy (from one named plaintiff having a claim of more than $75,000) to the total of $5 million. In addition, CAFA incorporated looser removal rules: in diversity cases any defendant can remove the case (including in-state defendants); any defendant can remove without the unanimous consent of the other defendants; there is no 1 year limit on the timing for removal of the case to another court’s jurisdiction; and the decision to grant or deny a remand is subject to appellate review.

On June 27, 2008, Betty Jean Russell went to see her eye doctor at Eye Associates of Northeast Louisiana. Russell, 78, who required a wheelchair to get around, was driven to the apppointment by her granddaughter, Ashley Dixon. While Dixon remained in the waiting room, an Eye Associates employee wheeled Russell back to an examination room. There, Russell was required to move to one of the facility’s wheelchairs in order to access one of the examination machines. Then, in order for her to look into a different machine, Russell was required to return to her own wheelchair. In the process of moving back to her own wheelchair unassisted, Russell fell, injuring her shoulder and breaking her thighbone. The Eye Associates employees did not call an ambulance, but rather helped Russell off the floor and back into her wheelchair. Dixon immediately drove her grandmother to the ER where Russell underwent surgery to set her broken leg. Although Russell was able to walk from time to time prior to her injuries, she was no longer able to walk at all. Russell filed suit against Eye Associates and Hanover Insurance Co., its general liability insurer. She also filed a petition for a medical review panel under the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act. The Louisiana Medical Mutual Insurance Company (LAMMICO), the professional liability insurer for Eye Associates, intervened in the action. Hanover filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Russell was injured while Eye Associates employees were delivering professional services, and therefore Russell’s claim was one of medical malpractice. LAMMICO, on the other hand, argued in its own motion for summary judgment that Russell’s fall was “not treatment-related” or “caused by a dereliction of professional skill,” which meant that LAMMICO was not liable for coverage for her injuries.

The trial court held a hearing on the motions for summary judgment, during which it determined that this was not a medical malpractice case. The court granted summary judgment in favor of LAMMICO and denied Hanover’s motion. Hanover appealed on the basis that “the undisputed facts
and evidence establish that the plaintiff’s injuries occurred as a result of a ‘medical incident,’ as defined by the LAMMICO policy.” On appeal, the Second Circuit reviewed that “[w]hen determining whether a policy affords coverage for an incident, the insured bears the burden of proving that the incident falls within the policy’s terms.” Furthermore, “summary judgment declaring a lack of coverage under an insurance policy may not be rendered unless there is no reasonable interpretation of the policy, when applied to the undisputed material facts shown by the evidence supporting the motion, under which coverage could be afforded.” The court noted that the definition of malpractice under Louisiana law includes “unintentional torts by healthcare providers and their employees based on health care or professional services rendered.” The LAMMICO policy maintained by Eye Associates provided professional liability coverage for “incidents arising out of the rendering or failure to render professional services.” The policy defined professional services to include treatment, diagnosis, rendering medical opinions or advice, or performing management or administrative duties by Eye Associates employees. LAMMICO argued that no doctor (or other health care provider) was involved in the accident, as “no assessment of [Russell’s] condition had taken place” at the time of her fall. However, the court noted that Russell testified that the Eye Associates employee involved in her accident had already used one type of machine to examine her eyes and was attempting to
position her in order to use another machine; this move from one wheelchari to another was necessary in order to continue Russell’s eye examination. This point, in the court’s view, created “a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the accident constitutes a medical incident which occurred in connection with the rendering of professional services, satisfying the statutory definition of malpractice and meeting the terms of the LAMMICO policy for coverage.” Accordingly, the court found that the trial judge erred in granting summary judgment in favor of LAMMICO. It reversed the trial court’s judgment an remanded the case for further proceedings.

This case shows how seemingly simple claims can turn complex in litigation. Much of the Second Circuit’s decision rested on a review of the insurance policies themselves, as contracts, to determine the potential for coverage for Russell’s claims. As with any personal injury case, it was essential for the plaintiff to retain experienced counsel to ensure that all potential defendants were brought into the litigation.

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When individuals apply for life insurance, several application forms must be submitted. Amongst these forms is a history of the applicant’s medical history. Based on this history, and a variety of other factors, insurance companies will either accept the application and set a premium that must be paid to obtain the insurance, or deny the application for pre-existing conditions. However, errors, omissions, and accidents occur during this application process and can cause several legal issues to arise when a life insurance policy needs to be paid out.

This situation arose in Foster v. United of Omaha. In that case, an individual sought to change her life insurer, but when the paperwork was arranged and sent to her, the medical history page was absent. The individual signed all of the paperwork and sent it back to the insurance company. Without any red flags regarding the individual’s medical history, United extended $1 million worth of life insurance to her. No physical health examination of the individual took place and the policy was extended based on the blank medical history paperwork.

The individual, after discovering that she was at high risk for cardiovascular disease, sought an addendum to the insurance policy to raise the payout to $2 million. To complete the policy change, the individual had to sign additional paperwork stating that her health condition had not changed since the issuance of the original policy. Because the individual never signed anything for the original policy claiming poor health, she signed the addendum stating that her health had not changed.

After some time, the individual passed away of lung cancer. United conducted an investigation and discovered that, prior to the issuance of the original coverage, the individual had been treated for heart disease, chest pain, and lung ailments. Based on these findings, coupled with the fact that the addendum stated that the individual’s health hadn’t changed, United refused to pay the policy out. The individual’s trustee brought suit against United, seeking payment of the policy.

Several insurance forms, including the one in Foster’s case, contain language that states “incorrect or misleading information may void this policy from its effective date.” Thus, courts have established that an insurance company, in order to rescind a policy on these grounds, must establish that statements made in the form were false, that those misrepresentations were made with an actual intent to deceive, and that the false statements materially affected the insurance company’s acceptance of risk. The most difficult of these elements to establish is the insured’s intent when making false statements. In these types of cases, courts often look to the attending circumstances to determine whether or not the insured had knowledge of the falsity.

In the Foster case, United failed to carry its burden of proof in establishing that the insured intended to deceive United. Though the individual did not claim her medical ailments in the policy application, the paperwork for the original policy was never made available to her. Thus, the insured could not be held responsible for claiming no change in her health when, in fact, it had not changed since the issuance of the original policy. The insured thought she was telling the truth, and therefore could not be held to have intended to deceive the insurer. This finding places responsibility on the insurer to ensure that all paperwork is provided and explained in a clear, reasonable manner. This avoids consumer confusion and creates an efficient market.

Many insurance companies claim that truthfulness is a condition precedent to policy coverage. This means that the policy will only extend its coverage upon the fulfillment of truthful statements required by the applicant. However, whether or not something is a condition precedent is a matter of contract interpretation. In the Foster case, for example, the court held that the language in the addendum that stated “incorrect or misleading information provided herein may void this policy from its effective date” was permissive. The use of “may” in this type of contract suggests that misleading information provided by the applicant might void the policy, but on the other hand, it might not. Such permissive language will never be held to be a condition precedent in insurance disputes.

With these rules at hand, the court in the Foster case found that United was not entitled to withhold the policy payment. Such a finding solidifies courts’ standing in placing responsibility on insurance companies to provide accurate assessment of insurance coverage and risk. Placing this burden on insurance applicants would carry market chilling potential. In addition, search costs could rise and those who were inexperienced with insurance applications would be prone to making mistakes that would stifle courts with insurance interpretation disputes.

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Longterm treatment and care can oftentimes be difficult and emotionally taxing for all involved. What’s more, when an already arduous process is muddled by improper actions by the medical staff, legal resolutions do exist but are unlikely to remedy the problems caused.

After what seemed like a never-ending nap, an individual who will not be named was transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, where she spent the last nineteen days of her life. Her family, including her husband and three children, brought a medical malpractice case against her treating and diagnosing physicians as well as their insurance carrier. After a grant of summary judgment and a denied motion to continue, the decedent’s family followed with an appeal against the treating neurologist, Dr. Steven Snatic, and his medical malpractice insurance provider, Louisiana Medical Mutual Insurance Company (hereinafter “LAMMICO”), claiming the denial of appropriate care, misdiagnosis and resultant death. Upon further analysis of the underlying issues, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment and the matter was remanded to the trial court.

An expert witness testified to the medical review panel that the decedent was properly diagnosed and treated, despite the fact that she was treated for a condition she did not have. The basis for this argument was that the treatment for the misdiagnosis of cryptococcal meningitis was supportive for her true condition, cerebritis. Simply stated, this is a bit like saying if you have a headache and take an aspirin, which happens to also cure the pain in your back, then you’re covered. While this seems to be a difficult legal argument, the expert explained that because the decedent had lupus, it was difficult to make an accurate diagnosis.

The appellate court reviews appeals of summary judgments de novo, basically starting from scratch, with an eye toward determining three issues: (1) whether the decision of the lower court was appropriate; (2) whether there was a genuine issue of material fact; and (3) whether the appellant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Verbatim, the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Article 966(C)(2) states: “the movant’s burden on the motion [for summary judgment] does not require him to negate all essential elements of the adverse party’s claim, action or defense, but rather to point out to the court that there is an absence of factual support for one or more elements essential to the adverse party’s claim, action, or defense.” Additionally, in a medical malpractice case, a plaintiff is required under Louisiana Revised Statutes 9:2794(A) to prove the three following elements: “(1) the standard of care applicable to the defendant; (2) that the defendant breached the standard of care; and (3) that there was a causal connection between the breach and the resulting injury.”

The real questions that remained included if there a genuine issue as to material fact and is the family entitled to judgment as a matter of law? It is safe to speculate that a person without an advanced degree in medicine can see a problem with a patient being misdiagnosed and treated for an ailment she did not have. Under these details, it is probably safe to go one step further and conclude that summary judgment was not rightfully granted. Doubt and questions as to material fact are dripping all over this case.

So, why was the summary judgment motion granted? In this case the decedent’s family had the burden to prove that there was a breach in the standard of care administered by the physician. In order to accomplish this task, it was necessary to present an affidavit from an expert. It turns out the decedent’s family was not able to obtain an expert neurologist in time to draft an opinion. After two failed attempts with motions to continue, the decedents engaged a cardiologist, who was also a board certified internist, for a supporting affidavit. However, the court looked right through the substance of the documents, or lack thereof, and granted the summary judgment motion, which brings us to the present.

Basically, by the structure of law, the defendants had to show that factual evidence exists to adequately establish there is no genuine issue of material fact in order to be successful with the motion. Here, it is not readily apparent that the healthcare and insurance providers were able to complete such a weighty task. The defendants argued that the expert’s opinion failed to identity his training or experience, as required under the statute, since he did not specialize in the desired field of neurology. However, Hebert v. Podiatry Ins. Co. of America determined that the particular field of specialty is not the crucial point, but instead the knowledge of the subject matter, such that the individual possesses the capacity to testify as to the matter at hand in satisfying the plaintiff’s burdens. Due to the fact that the cardiologist was not a neurologist, the lower court determined that he was not credible. However, it was strictly stated in the doctor’s opinion that “the standards of care ‘are common to both the specialties and are equivalent and known’ to him.” The doctor also discussed how it was obvious that the misdiagnosis combined with the complications of lupus dramatically reduced the decedent’s chance of survival.

Accordingly, it was determined that the lower court got it wrong. The cardiologist was in fact capable of testifying as to the standard of care that should have been given to the decedent. This leads to the conclusion that an expert witness need not have the exact same training or specialty in order to testify as to the burdens a plaintiff must meet in a medical malpractice case, so long as they are equipped with the knowledge and experience to competently answer the questions. The grant of summary judgment in favor of Dr. Snatic and LAMMICO was reversed.

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