HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined on Sept. 26 that a local hospital won't get a new trial despite claiming that a portion of a $2.4 million award for former patients could be time-barred.
The case landed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's Middle District after a lower court ruled in favor of a couple, Betty and Curtis Shiflett, and granted them $2,391,620 in damages in their suit against Lehigh Valley Hospital and Lehigh Valley Health Network Inc. The couple claimed the negligence after Betty Shiflett’s knee surgery caused both of them to suffer injuries.
During discovery, the Shifletts amended their claim, adding defendants to the lawsuit. The hospital argued that the second claim was time-barred, but the lower court allowed it, saying it arose from the first claim.
The state Superior Court subsequently ruled that the second claim wasn’t timely, so the jury should have never been presented with it. It then remanded the case back for a new trial on damages.
The Supreme Court weighed in after the Shifletts' request for an appeal from that was granted. The high court said the issue raised by the Shifletts was whether the Superior Court had misunderstood or misapplied the precedent set by the high court in ruling their award from the second complaint should have been time-barred.
The problem, the high court said, was that the hospital didn't ask for a special interrogatory from the jury when it was deciding the damages awarded, so there was no way to tell what damages came from the first claim, and what damages came from the second claim.
In its decision, the Supreme Court simply determined whether the lower Superior Court panel overlooked or misunderstood the Supreme Court’s previous precedent that stated that if one side does not ask for a special interrogatory on the verdict sheet that details damages between causes, does it forfeit its chance to object to a general damage verdict?
“We conclude that the Superior Court erred in this regard, as pursuant to the ‘general-verdict rule’ adopted by this court... The hospital waived any entitlement to a new trial on damages when it failed to request a special interrogatory on the verdict sheet that would have permitted the jury to allocate the damages awarded on each claim,” the high court said in its ruling.
The Supreme Court said that the Superior Court’s ruling to allow a retrial on damages stemmed from the notion that the couple experienced separate and very different injuries as a result of the hospital’s corporate negligence in the post-surgical unit (PSU) and the transitional skills unit (TSU). But based on the proof presented during the trial, Betty Shiflett suffered a sole injury, an avulsion fracture that led to her permanent disability, in the PSU, where she fell out of her hospital bed shortly after her surgery. The Shifletts submitted a second claim related to that injury during discovery, but it was still the same injury.
As for the special interrogatory argument, the Supreme Court said the hospital's argument that the second claim was time-barred was fair. But, the Supreme Court added, “The hospital was acutely aware of this possibility throughout the course of the trial yet failed to request a special interrogatory that could have prevented this eventuality.”
The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the Superior Court’s order and remanded the case to be considered for issues that the superior court did not resolve.
Betty Shiflett’s knee surgery took place on April 12, 2012. She fell out of the bed while receiving treatment and recovering in the PSU. Less than a week after her surgery, she was moved to the TSU to receive occupational and physical therapy.
While at TSU, she suffered even more pain and noticed a clicking sound inside of her knee. She told a nurse, Kristen Michels Mahler, about her concerns, but Mahler allegedly failed to inform the physician who was treating her about it. Ultimately, it was a physical therapist who told doctors about her issues with her knee on April 19, 2012.
Doctors subsequently said that Betty Shiflett had an avulsion fracture. She had to get two more surgeries to fix her knee, and neither of them actually helped the cause. “Betty has been left with no extensor mechanism in her leg, suffers from chronic pain, and is confined to a wheelchair,” according to the opinion.
She and her husband filed the lawsuit in February 2014 alleging negligence in failing to prevent Betty Shiflett’s fall out of the bed and loss of consortium.
Justice Christine Donohue wrote the opinion. Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd, Kevin M. Dougherty, David N. Wecht and Sallie Updyke Mundy joined.
Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor dissented in a separate opinion, stating that if he had his way, he would affirm the Superior Court’s ruling and give the matter a fresh start concerning damages. “The general rule, as pertained in most courts and still does in many today, is that when a jury returns a general verdict on multiple theories of liability, one of which is later found to be invalid, the verdict must be reversed and a new trial ordered,” said Saylor in his separate opinion.