Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Plaintiff’s Wrongful Death Victory

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently upheld the victory of the administratrix of the estate of decedent Jeanne Ellis in her lawsuit against Dr. Peter Clarke for wrongful death and malpractice. The jury determined that defendant Dr. Peter Clarke was negligent in his care and treatment of Ellis and that his negligence was a substantial contributing factor causing Ellis’s death from lung cancer. Clarke appealed from the denial of his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for new trial or, in the alternative, remittitur. The court affirmed.

chest x-ray

Dr. Clark contended that the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.) was improperly denied because the evidence at trial was insufficient for a number of reasons. He first argued that one of Ellis’ expert witnesses, Dr. Luchs, a radiologist, was unqualified to render an opinion on standard of care because he was not an emergency radiologist. The appeals court found that the the trial court correctly determined that Dr. Luchs was qualified; he is a diagnostic radiologist who specializes in vascular and interventional radiology. Throughout his career, he had read and reported chest x-rays from emergency departments.  Dr. Luchs had substantially similar education and training as both Dr. Clarke and Dr. Abujudeh, one of Clarke’s experts. Moreover, Dr. Luchs testified that his job often required him to read x-rays in an emergency room setting. For these reasons, the appeals court concluded that there was no abuse of discretion in admitting his testimony.

Dr. Clarke next argued that Ellis did not have to produce evidence of a specific date by which the diagnosis should have been made, and treatment should have commenced had the appropriate standard of care been followed. The appeals court deemed the issue waived because the judge noted no argument approaching this claim was raised in Dr. Clarke’s motions for directed verdict and a party may not raise an issue in a motion for judgment n.o.v. that was not raised in a motion for directed verdict.

The appeals court further held that regardless of whether the argument had been waived, it still lacked merit. The jury could have found that the nodule should have been detected in October 2006, the date of Dr. Clarke’s report on the chest x-ray, and such testing would have shown that the decedent had cancer.  The testimony of Dr. Luchs that to a reasonable medical certainty the decedent would have had a much improved chance of survival or longer life if treatment meeting accepted standards of care had been appropriately initiated, the court concluded, and was sufficient to meet Ellis’s legal burden.

The appeals court also concluded contrary to Dr. Clarke’s argument that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that decedent endured conscious pain and suffering that was distinct from any pain and suffering the decedent would have experienced normally had she been properly diagnosed. The court stressed the evidence that the decedent experienced conscious pain and suffering associated with metasteses to the spine and hip, the prolonged chemotherapy required by Stage IV diagnosis, the end stage of the disease, and the dying process. Additionally, the jury was permitted to infer that the suffering associated with the cancer treatments would have been materially different had the decedent been expected to live rather than die and that the knowledge of a preventable death caused conscious suffering.

The court also rejected Dr. Clarke’s argument that the judge erred in denying his motion for new trial or remittitur. Dr. Clarke first claimed that Ellis failed to comply with the Massachusetts rules of civil procedure (Rule 26) because her pretrial disclosure of Dr. Levin’s testimony was entirely silent on staging and survival rates and therefore the testimony should have been excluded. The court explained that in the absence of prejudicial error resulting from an abuse of discretion, it will not disturb a judge’s exercise of discretion regarding expert witness disclosures. Here, the trial court determined that the proffered testimony of Dr. Levin was well within the scope of disclosure and that there was no surprise or prejudice in the admission of Dr. Levin’s testimony. The appeals court agreed, reasoning that Dr. Clarke was on notice that Dr. Levin may be expected to testify that had Dr. Clarke rendered care in accordance with the accepted standard of care, the decedent’s lung cancer would have been diagnosed and treated as early as October 2006 when it was an earlier stage more amenable to cure. Thus, there was no abuse of discretion.

Dr. Clarke also contended that the judge erred by precluding the admission of evidence that the decedent continued to smoke after her cancer diagnosis. In denying the defendant’s motion, the judge explained that she would have allowed the admission of such evidence had Dr. Clarke elicited expert testimony, either from Ellis’ witnesses or his own, that there was a causal link between the decedent’s continued smoking and the decedent’s prognosis, treatment, or life expectancy. Reasoning that the need for expert testimony depends on the trial judge’s discretionary determination of whether the subject matter is beyond the scope of common knowledge, the court found no abuse of discretion.

The defendant finally argued that the damages awarded by the jury were excessive. The appeals court held that the judge did not abuse her discretion in denying the defendant’s motion where, as here, the damages awarded were not greatly disproportionate to the injury proven, nor did the award represent a miscarriage of justice.

For these reasons, the court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you have been injured by another party’s negligence, you may face significant medical bills and time off work, and you may need the assistance of a personal injury lawyer to redress your injuries. At the Neumann Law Group, our personal injury attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to accident victims all over the state of Massachusetts. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

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