In a recent case, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Florida issued an opinion in an appeal involving a wrongful death complaint between the Appellee, the plaintiff who is a personal representative of the decedent’s estate, and the Appellants, Cleveland Clinic Florida Health System (Cleveland Clinic). The plaintiff sued Cleveland Clinic for wrongful death after the decedent was admitted to the hospital through the emergency room, and healthcare providers performed an intubation action that caused fatal brain injuries. The trial court made a non-final order granting the appellee’s motion to amend a wrongful death medical malpractice complaint to assert a claim for punitive damages.
The decedent was admitted to the hospital through the emergency room. When his condition deteriorated, healthcare providers performed an intubation action that caused fatal brain injuries. To support their claims, the appellee relied on comments purportedly made by the hospital’s chief medical officer following the decedent’s death and arguments related to the appellants’ general failure to follow current policy procedures, make changes to their policies, and use the incident as a teaching opportunity for its interns, residents, and fellows. At trial, the court ruled that proffered evidence showed the doctors and other health care providers were grossly negligent by, contrary to the emergency room physician’s recommendation, placing the decedent on a floor level with fewer observation checks, failing to attend to the decedent during the various emergency calls, and beginning intubation without proper supervision, causing the delayed intubation that led to the decedent’s death. To support the punitive damages claim against the hospital, the trial court found a jury could conclude that the hospital’s response to the incident reflects its “condonement and ratification of the provider’s gross negligence.”
On appeal, the Cleveland Clinic argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the plaintiff made a “reasonable showing” under section 768.72 to recover punitive damages. The appellate court reverses the lower court decision for two reasons. First, the appeals court found that the proffered evidence at the hearing failed to show that the healthcare providers involved were grossly negligent. Second, neither the complaint nor the proffered evidence demonstrated how the appellants’ actions either before or during the decedent’s treatment ratified or approved the healthcare providers’ alleged negligent conduct. The appellate decision stated that “appellee’s proffered evidence provided no reasonable basis for recovery of punitive damages, which are reserved ‘to express society’s collective outrage.’” Further, the opinion states that even assuming the proffered evidence demonstrated gross negligence by the health care providers, the trial court erred in finding that a jury could reasonably conclude that the appellants ratified or condoned that negligence to subject it to punitive damages. The appeals court points out that the trial court relied on conduct that post-dated the treatment of the decedent and that such actions are not admissible on the issue of punitive damages. Subsequently, the appellate court reversed the lower court order.