Washington Case Law Update: Is Medical Expertise Required to Establish the Standard of Care and Causation?
From the desk of Thomas McCurdy: In a medical malpractice lawsuit, must the plaintiff provide medical expert testimony to establish the standard of care and causation, and therefore defeat the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment? Read on to find out.
Claims Pointer: In this case arising out of a medical malpractice suit, the Washington Court of Appeals considered whether the plaintiff could establish the standard of care and causation without providing medical expert testimony. This case serves as a reminder of the necessity of medical expert testimony in a Motion for Summary Judgment.
Brownfield v. Valley General Hospital Foundation, No. 75553-6-I, Washington Court of Appeals Div. I (October 2, 2017) (unpublished)
After undergoing shoulder surgery, Kirt Brownfield (“Brownfield”) began physical therapy at the Valley General Hospital Foundation (“Valley General”). Brownfield’s shoulder allegedly began to improve until it was reinjured during treatment by a new therapist. According to Brownfield, the therapist performed a new movement on his arm, without discussing the risks, benefits, or obtaining consent to perform the movement. As a result of the new shoulder injury, Brownfield had to undergo additional surgery.
Brownfield filed suit against Valley General in 2015. He alleged medical malpractice, claiming that his shoulder injury was due to the failure of Valley General’s employee to exercise reasonable prudent, “which fell below the applicable standard of care.” Valley General responded by moving for summary judgment, arguing that Brownfield lacked medical evidence to support his claim. The trial court granted Valley General’s Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed Brownfield’s complaint.
The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment. The court explained that summary judgment is proper when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Washington Superior Court Civil Rules (“CR”) 56(c). Further, in claims for injuries arising from health care, Washington’s statute requires the plaintiff to prove each essential element of the claim by a preponderance of the evidence. In Brownfield’s claim, the first element is the standard of care and requires showing that the health care provider failed to exercise the degree of care, skill, and learning of a reasonably prudent health care provider in same or similar circumstances. The second element is causation and requires showing that the health care provider’s failure to exercise the proper degree of care was a proximate cause of the injury.
The court then considered the importance of medical testimony in establishing the elements of a medical malpractice suit. The court noted that it is not always necessary to prove causation when the facts and circumstances allow a reasonable person to infer that a causal connection exists. However, expert testimony is “generally necessary to establish the standard of care,” and most aspects of causation. Thus, according to the court, “[t]o defeat summary judgment in almost all medical negligence cases, the plaintiff must produce testimony from a competent medical expert.”
The Washington Court of Appeals noted that at the trial court, Valley General’s Motion for Summary Judgment argued that Brownfield lacked medical expert testimony to establish the standard of care and causation. Brownfield’s response to the motion offered no medical expert testimony to establish either the standard of care or causation. The court found that without medical expertise, Brownfield could not establish either the standard of care of causation. Further, Brownfield’s argument on appeal shifted, and he argued that his injury resulted from health care to which he did not consent. The court explained that it would not consider Brownfield’s new argument because he did not plead that claim in his complaint. Accordingly, the Washington Court of Appeals found that Brownfield failed to establish the standard of care and causation. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant the Motion for Summary Judgment and dismiss Brownfield’s complaint.
NOTE: This opinion has not been published. It is provided to demonstrate how the court approaches the issues involved in the case. It cannot be cited as authority to a court of law.
View full opinion at: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/755536.pdf
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.
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