Florida Supreme Court Overturns Decision in Medical Malpractice Case: Saunders v. Dickens

Wheelchair by the waterIn Saunders v. Dickens, a Florida man went to see a physician over pain, numbness, cramps, and lack of coordination while standing. The neurologist diagnosed the man with peripheral neuropathy caused by diabetes, although the doctor did not perform tests to confirm his diagnosis. He also sent the man to a local hospital for treatment. An MRI revealed the man suffered from a narrowed spinal canal. After that, the physician apparently consulted with another doctor and performed a neurological examination on the man. Following the examination, the doctor recommended the man undergo surgery for lumbar decompression.

Unfortunately, the man’s condition worsened following surgery. As a result, his doctor ordered additional testing, which revealed other areas of compression in the man’s neck and back. Prior to a second surgery, the man developed deep venous thrombosis.

Eventually, the Florida man obtained a second opinion from a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon recommended the man undergo at least two additional surgeries. Before this could happen, however, the man developed degenerative quadriplegia and passed away. Prior to the man’s death, he and his wife filed a failure to diagnose lawsuit against the physician, neurosurgeon, and hospital that treated him. The man settled his claims against each defendant except the doctor with whom he initially sought treatment. According to the physician, the man’s injury resulted from his neurosurgeon’s negligence.

At trial, the man offered expert testimony stating his physician breached the accepted standard of care that a neurologist must provide. The expert also stated the doctor erroneously failed to consider other causes for the man’s symptoms despite reviewing an MRI. The expert added that it was likely the man would have improved or remained in a similar state if the doctor had correctly diagnosed the man’s condition in the first place.

The physician offered evidence to refute the man’s expert testimony and moved for a directed verdict. A directed verdict is an order from a judge who is presiding over a jury trial to return a particular decision. Typically, such a motion is only granted when no reasonable jury could return a different decision. The physician argued that the man failed to establish causation because the man’s neurosurgeon stated he would not have treated the patient differently even if the initial doctor adhered to the prevailing standard of care. After that, the court refused to provide jurors with the man’s proposed jury instructions regarding causation, and the jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the doctor.

The man appealed his case to Florida’s Fourth District, which affirmed the jury’s decision based on prior precedent. Since a conflict existed between the Fourth District Court of Appeals and two other cases decided by Florida’s Third and Fifth Districts, the Supreme Court of Florida accepted review of the case.

First, the Supreme Court of Florida stated the issue presented related to the burden of proof in a negligence action. Next, the high court examined the conflicting cases and discussed the elements required to demonstrate medical malpractice in Florida, including duty, breach, and causation. After that, the court examined the facts of the case at issue and held that the lower court committed harmful error when it allowed the doctor to tell jurors the man failed to prove causation. Finally, the court held that testimony offered by the neurosurgeon stating he would not have treated the patient differently even if the initial doctor adhered to the prevailing standard of care was inadmissible. Since the Florida Supreme Court approved of the relevant case law decided by the state’s Fifth and Third District Courts of Appeal and disapproved of that decided by the Fourth District, the high court overturned the lower court’s decision in the man’s medical malpractice case.

If you were hurt or a loved one was killed due to medical malpractice, the knowledgeable lawyers at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. may be able to help.  To discuss your case with a veteran advocate, call Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. at (305) 448-8585 or contact us online.

Additional Resources:

Saunders v. Dickens, Fla: Supreme Court 2014

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