In a recent case, a Kentucky Court of Appeals considered whether punitive damages were appropriate in a case of hospital negligence. The hospital disputed the punitive damages as excessive, arguing that it had not ratified its employees’ conduct nor acted with gross negligence.
The case arose when a 39-year-old man came to the hospital’s emergency room with abdominal pain, constipation, nausea and vomiting. He was given medication for his pain and treated with other minor procedures. Lab tests and x-rays were ordered, but were not actually conducted. The man was discharged and taken around to family members, but because none of them offered him a place to stay he came back to the hospital, which arranged for a hotel room.
He came back to the hospital the next morning, after throwing up dried blood for several hours. Lab tests and x-rays were conducted. He was discharged after noon. He died later that day from heart disease and complications from an ulcer.
His estate brought a lawsuit, alleging that the hospital and its doctors was medically negligent. The estate argued the hospital was in violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). The estate settled with several doctors, but went to trial against the hospital.
The jury found for the estate on negligence and the EMTALA claims. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $25,000, of which the hospital was only responsible for $3,750 due to comparative fault. The jury also awarded punitive damages against the hospital only of $1.5 million.
The hospital filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial. The trial court denied these motions with respect to the compensatory damages, but granted the motion as to punitive damages on the grounds that it was excessive. The trial court ordered a new trial on punitive damages. Both parties appealed.
The hospital argued the jury instructions with respect to punitive damages were inadequate. The estate replied that the award of punitive damages was not excessive and no new trial should be conducted. The appellate court affirmed some of the decision, but sent the case back for a new trial on punitive damages. The court ruled that the punitive damages instruction had to have a standard of proof and require the plaintiff to prove the hospital ratified its employees’ conduct.
The hospital asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to review. It sent the case back for a new trial on punitive damages. The hospital moved for a directed verdict at the end of the plaintiff’s case, arguing that it hadn’t presented enough evidence of gross negligence or ratification. The motion was denied.
The verdict awarded the plaintiffs $1,450,000 in punitive damages. The hospital again requested a new trial, claiming that the damages were excessive, but the trial court denied the motion.
The Court of Appeals explained that the employees’ misconduct went beyond independent instances of gross negligence, but showed a pattern. The hospital had discharged the patient in 16 hours two times without stabilizing his condition. Lab tests were ordered, but not conducted. His vital signs were not recorded. The results of tests on the second visit were not reported to physicians. When family members complained on his behalf, a social worker and emergency room director told them they would call the police if he attempted to come back to the hospital.
The hospital approved of its staff’s action, showing ratification. Although the hospital was not liable for failing to detect an emergency condition, it should have stabilized the emergency condition before discharging the patient. In this case, the ER repeatedly dismissed signs of the patient’s distress.
The appellate court explained that if there is proof that violations are reckless or grossly negligent but the punitive damages award is greater than the potential civil fine, the court cannot say it was clearly excessive. The ratio between the punitive damages award and the compensatory damages award is not the only factor to be weighed. The appellate court affirmed the award.
If you or a loved one is seriously injured due to a hospital or nursing home’s negligence, you should consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible to determine whether any relief is available to you. The knowledgeable Kentucky personal injury attorneys of English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley may be able to help. Contact us at (270) 781-6500 or via our online form.