Court of Appeals Affirms Award of Compensatory Damages in Negligence Action for Medical Malpractice

On November 20, 2014, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Providence Hospital, Inc. v. Willis, Nos. 13-CV-920 & 13-CV-921, slip op. (D.C. Nov. 20, 2014), in which it reviewed a judgment awarding compensatory damages for medical malpractice. Id. at 1-2.

By way of background, the plaintiff in this case alleged, inter alia, that nurses employed by the defendant-hospital were negligent “when, after a surgery, they failed to place on his legs sequential compression devices (SCDs) ordered by the surgeon.” Id. at 1-2. The plaintiff further alleged that, as a proximate result of this negligence, he underwent a “below-knee amputation of both of his legs at another hospital.” Id. at 2. The case proceeded to trial which culminated in a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff $650,000 in compensatory damages. Id. at 1-2. The trial court upheld the jury verdict over the objections of both parties and entered judgment accordingly. Id. at 2. The defendant-hospital appealed, and the plaintiff cross-appealed. Id.

With respect to the appeal, the defendant-hospital argued that the trial court should have set-aside the jury’s verdict because the plaintiff failed to prove proximate cause in that he failed to disprove that the immediate medical condition resulting in the amputations (deep venous thrombosis) “became established too early” for the SCDs to be effective. Id. at 4. The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant-hospital’s argument. Id. at 3-6. It stated that the defendant-hospital “points to no case law or other authority requiring [the plaintiff] to negate a possibility . . . and show by a preponderance of the evidence, as he did, that timely placement of the SCDs would have” prevented his injuries. Id. at 4-5 (emphasis in original). It further stated that “[r]equiring [the plaintiff] to do both . . . would amount to increasing his burden of proof to something akin to the standard in criminal cases.” Id. at 5.

With respect to the cross-appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury to disregard any “special susceptibility” to injury that the plaintiff had in determining whether the defendant-hospital was liable. Id. at 6-7. The plaintiff further argued that, “without the special susceptibility instruction, the jury may have unfairly reduced or discounted his damages to the extent it saw [any special susceptibility] . . . as combining with the [defendant-hospital’s] negligence to cause the need for the amputations.” Id. at 7. The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff’s argument. Id. at 8-9. It stated that the defendant-hospital “did not imply, in questioning of witnesses or closing argument,” that damages should be mitigated by any special susceptibility. Id. at 8. It further stated that, “in assessing the damages to be awarded, the jury would have received no guidance from an instruction designed to forestall a mitigation (or minimization) argument that was not part of the case actually tried.” Id. at 8.

Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. Id. at 9. For general background about negligence claims for medical malpractice in the District of Columbia, see Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia § 11 (2014).