Monday, March 5, 2012

Punitive Damages Claim Reinstated in Medical Malpractice Action

In Marsh v. Arnot Ogden Med. Ctr., the Third Department recently reinstated claims for punitive damages against a hospital, its nurse and an attending physician.  The plaintiff alleged that the physician failed to properly monitor the plaintiff's decedent after a medication error by the nurse.  More specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the nurse mistakenly injected the decedent with an insulin-reducing medication that had not been prescribed.  In doing so, the nurse allegedly ignored a relative's warning that the decedent was not diabetic and failed to confirm the identity of the patient.  After learning of the error, the physician ordered that the decedent's glucose be monitored every two hours and to call him at home.  After the second test, the physician allegedly said the staff could discontinue the monitoring until morning.  In the morning, however, the decedent's glucose dropped to 15 and he died shortly thereafter from an insulin overdose. 

The trial court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss and for partial summary judgment on the punitive damages claims, but the Third Department reversed and reinstated the claims.  The Court held that the nurse's motion should not have been granted because the nurse allegedly ignored the warning that the decedent was not diabetic.  According to the Court, this dispute of fact raises questions as to whether the nurse's conduct transcends mere carelessness as to be reckless indifference.  

As to the physician, the Court found that if the plaintiff could prove the defendant, despite the known risks, did not come to the hospital and ordered the staff to stop monitoring, it is possible that such conduct could be found grossly inappropriate.

Finally, with respect to the hospital, the Court held that at this stage the punitive damages claim could proceed because the hospital's medical records failed to note the medical error until four months after the decedent's death and they provided no explanation for the delay.  There was also evidence that the nurse had made a prior medication error with a different patient, which according to the Court may raise questions as to whether the hospital had appropriate safety precautions and training in place to identify medication errors.     

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