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CA Appeals Court Ruling on Sexual Assault Personal Injury Claim

When lawsuits are filed by plaintiffs against hospitals in California, the hospitals may file motions for summary judgment if there are no triable material issues of fact. In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, a hospital may call an expert witness to opine that the hospital met the reasonable standard of care. If the expert’s testimony indicates that the reasonable standard of care was met, the burden of proof then shifts to the plaintiff to show that there are still material issues of triable fact. If the plaintiff is unable to present evidence that there are remaining issues of triable fact, the court may dismiss the lawsuit. However, as Doe v. Good Samaritan Hospital Inc., Cal. App. 5th, Case No. F073934 shows, the burden will not shift to the plaintiff in cases in which an expert’s testimony is purely conclusory without any underlying facts to support the opinion.

Factual background

The plaintiff was a 12-year-old boy who had a history of Asperger’s syndrome and bipolar disorder. He was voluntarily admitted to the Good Samaritan Hospital, a psychiatric facility, after suffering from homicidal and suicidal ideations because of his treatment at school. At the hospital, he was placed in a room with a 10-year-old boy who had been involuntarily committed called K.W. The 10-year-old boy had been placed in the facility on a psychiatric hold because of homicidal ideations and an assault on his stepfather that required medical treatment. He was also thought to be a danger to his two younger brothers.

The treating psychiatrist ordered that both boys should be checked every 15 minutes. No information was provided about how long the observations lasted or who performed them. The plaintiff was released from the hospital on Nov. 12, 2012, after a nine-day stay. After his release, he began acting out inappropriately in a sexual manner and experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. About six months later, he told his parents that K.W. had sodomized him in the bathroom on the second night of his stay in the hospital. A guardian ad litem filed a lawsuit on his behalf, alleging that the hospital was negligent in its supervision of K.W. and its room assignment of K.W. together with the plaintiff. The hospital filed a motion for summary judgment and called a psychiatric nurse as an expert. She testified that the hospital met its standard of care in all aspects of the plaintiff’s stay. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

Issue: Whether an expert’s conclusory opinion without supporting facts is enough to shift the burden to the plaintiff

At issue in the case was whether or not the nurse’s expert testimony was sufficient to shift the burden of proof to the plaintiff. The nurse offered an expert opinion that the hospital’s care reasonably met the standard of care in all aspects because the boys were checked every 15 minutes as ordered by the doctor. She did not offer any evidence about the protocols and procedures of the hospital in terms of its room assignments or assessments. The plaintiff did not present any experts and argued that a standard of ordinary negligence applied. In other words, the plaintiff argued that the type of negligence that applied in the case was one that was understandable by people of ordinary intelligence. On appeal, the plaintiff also argued that the nurse’s expert opinion was not supported by any facts and was purely conclusory so that the burden of proof should never have been shifted to the plaintiff.

Rule: The hospital had a burden to completely defend against every theory of liability by offering underlying facts to support the expert’s opinion

According to the rule in Eriksson v. Nunnink, 191 Cal. App. 4th 196 (2011), defendants have the burden of presenting complete defenses to every theory of liability that is presented in the complaints. In Kelley v. Trunk, 66 Cal.App.4th 519 (1998), the court found that a conclusory opinion that is not supported by underlying facts will not be sufficient to shift the burden of proof to the plaintiff. In that case, however, the court ruled that the dimissal was warranted because the plaintiff did not raise an objection to the expert’s conclusory opinion at the time.

Analysis

In the instant case, the court found that the expert’s opinion was conclusory and did not present a complete defense to all potential issues of triable fact. The opinion specifically did not address the protocols and procedures that the hospital used to assess patients and to make room assignments. The expert likewise did not reference any protocols that were used for monitoring such as how long the checks lasted or who performed them. In its analysis of the expert’s opinion, the court found that the hospital failed to present a complete defense to every theory of liability that it was presented.

Conclusion

Since the hospital’s expert witness only gave a conclusory opinion that failed to address the theories of negligence pleaded by the plaintiff as to the standard of care for its assessment and placement of patients in the rooms, the hospital failed to meet its burden of proof for the motion for summary judgment. Since the hospital did not meet the standard of proof, the burden never shifted to the plaintiff to present evidence that material issues of triable fact remained. The appeals court reversed the ruling of the trial court and returned the case for further proceedings.

People who are injured in hospitals because of the negligence of the staff might want to talk to experienced personal injury lawyers in Los Angeles. The lawyers may assist their clients in drafting the complaints and presenting all potential theories of liability. If the hospitals file motions for summary judgment, the attorneys may call experts to counter the defense experts at the hearings. This may help the plaintiffs to prevail if the defense files a motion for summary judgment.

Sources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2018/f073934.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2018-05-25-personal-injury-f1fcff86c7&utm_content=text-case-read-more

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2015/e057158.html

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/4th/66/519.html

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