Addition of Time-Barred Claims Warrants New Trial in $2.4 Million Medical Malpractice Case

Posted on: November 2, 2017

On November 9, 2017, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court ordered a new trial in Shiflett v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, a medical malpractice case that resulted in a $2.4 million jury award in mid-2016.

As in any negligence suit, as discovery in a medical malpractice case proceeds it may reveal facts that support the addition of parties and claims not stated in the original complaint. Trial courts are therefore typically liberal in allowing amendment of complaints to reflect such revelations.

This decision, however, illustrates the difficulty a court can have in distinguishing between additional facts which support an existing claim and an entirely new and distinct cause of action.

The Facts

On April 12, 2012, plaintiff Betty Shiflett underwent knee surgery at defendant Lehigh Valley Hospital (LVH). While recovering in the hospital’s Post-Surgical Unit (PSU) she fell out of bed and suffered a leg fracture. However, the fracture was not diagnosed until April 19, by which time Ms. Shiflett had undergone four days of physical and occupational therapy at Lehigh Valley’s Transitional Skills Unit (TSU).

Two subsequent surgeries to repair Ms. Shiflett’s knee were unsuccessful, and additional surgery is contraindicated. Ms. Shiflett claims that she is permanently disabled and suffers from depression and anxiety as a result of her injuries.   

The Case Below

In February 2014, Ms. Shiflett and her husband filed suit against LVH, claiming it was negligent for failing to identify her as a fall risk and put appropriate preventive measures in place. Neither the original complaint nor a first amended version referred to an aspect of Ms. Shiflett’s April 15-19 stay in the TSU.

In May 2015, the trial court granted plaintiffs’ motion to permit the filing a second amended complaint. There, for the first time, plaintiffs asserted that TSU nurse Michels Mahler’s failure to promptly respond to and report Ms. Shiflett’s complaints of pain during physical therapy was also negligent and resulted in exacerbation of her injuries.

In February 2016, the jury found LVH independently negligent in connection with Ms. Shiflett’s fall in the PSU due to its failure to have proper fall prevention procedures and training in place. It also found TSU Nurse Mahler and LVH negligent in connection with Ms. Shiflett’s care in the TSU and awarded plaintiffs approximately $2.4 million in damages.

On Appeal

Before the Superior Court, LVH argued that, by virtue of the trial court’s allowance of the second amended complaint, what was a “fall prevention” case was supplemented by a “nursing malpractice” case involving a different time frame and facility within the LVH system. Since the latter claims were not previously pled, the court should have found that the claim was barred by Pennsylvania’s two-year medical malpractice statute of limitations and denied leave to amend. LVH thus contended that its motion for a directed defense verdict should have been granted.

Analyzing the facts in light of what is perhaps a surprising number of prior cases in which multiple incidents of alleged medical negligence occurred, the Superior Court agreed, noting that the allegedly negligent conduct of TSU Nurse Mahler occurred in a different unit at a different point in time. The trial court should not have granted plaintiffs leave to first introduce the TSU-related claims more than three years after the alleged negligence occurred.

Retrial

The Court concluded that the only disputed issue was the extent to which the damage award included consideration of the improperly allowed TSU claim. It, therefore, directed the court below to schedule a new trial on the issue of damages alone.

NOTE: This is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.