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Herrett v. St. Luke's Magic Valley Regional Medical Center, Ltd.

Supreme Court of Idaho

September 6, 2018

RODNEY HERRETT and JOYCE HERRETT, as husband and wife, Plaintiffs-Respondents,
v.
ST. LUKE'S MAGIC VALLEY REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, LTD., dba ST. LUKE'S MAGIC VALLEY, Defendant-Appellant, and BUSINESS ENTITIES I through X, and JOHN DOE and JANE DOE, husband and wife, I through X, Defendants.

          Appeal from the District Court of the Fifth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Twin Falls County. Hon. Randy J. Stoker, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Gjording Fouser, PLLC, Boise, for appellant. Bobbi Dominick argued.

          Pedersen and Whitehead, Twin Falls, for respondents. Jarom A. Whitehead argued.

          HORTON, JUSTICE.

         St. Luke's Magic Valley Regional Medical Center (St. Luke's) appeals a jury verdict awarding Rodney and Joyce Herrett $3, 775, 864.21 in a medical malpractice action wherein St. Luke's admitted liability. In this appeal, St. Luke's asserts that the district court erred by denying its motion for mistrial, admitting certain expert testimony, and improperly instructing the jury as to recklessness. We affirm.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Joyce Herrett has suffered from various medical conditions throughout her life and she was hospitalized at St. Luke's in December of 2013 for a septic infection. On December 24, 2013, Herrett was about to be discharged. Just as Herrett was about to leave her room, she asked about the removal of a central venous catheter (CVC) that had been placed in her neck to allow the direct introduction of medication and fluids into her blood stream. Marilou Wentz, the nurse caring for Herrett, testified that she sought guidance from her supervisor, Sheila Dutt, because she had not removed a CVC before and that Dutt told her to just pull it out slowly. Dutt denied that Wentz had sought such instruction. Wentz removed the CVC while Herrett was seated upright in a wheelchair.

         As Wentz was removing the CVC, Herrett began to complain of difficulty in breathing. Herrett was placed on the hospital bed and Wentz went for help. A rapid response team was called and Herrett was transferred to the intensive care unit. Herrett had suffered a stroke resulting from an air embolism introduced during the removal of the CVC. After being treated for the stroke, Herrett was readmitted to the rehabilitation unit with Dr. Kim Wiggins as her treating physician.

         After a course of treatment, Herrett was released to go home but continued to see Dr. Wiggins. After initially doing well, Herrett was readmitted to the hospital in September of 2014 for failure to thrive. Following the stroke, Herrett has had trouble caring for herself and increased anxiety.

         The Herretts filed this suit on February 9, 2015. St. Luke's admitted that Wentz, its employee, breached the standard of care when removing the CVC. The case proceeded to trial to determine whether Wentz's conduct was reckless and the amount of damages. The jury trial lasted nine days.

         During trial, the Herretts called Dr. Wiggins to testify about her treatment of Ms. Herrett before and after the stroke. Dr. Wiggins testified that the 2014 hospitalization resulted from the stroke. During cross-examination, St. Luke's questioned Dr. Wiggins about other pre-existing conditions that may have necessitated the September 2014 hospitalization. St. Luke's introduced some of Herrett's medical records (exhibits K and L) into evidence during this cross-examination. On redirect, Dr. Wiggins was asked about encephalomalacia, a term appearing in the records admitted at St. Luke's request. St. Luke's objected, arguing that any opinion regarding encephalomalacia was outside the scope of Dr. Wiggins' expert witness disclosure. The district court overruled the objection.

         Near the end of their case-in-chief, the Herretts called Debra DeMint-Lee as a witness. Ms. DeMint-Lee is a life-care planner who testified about the cost of Herrett's future in-home medical care. St. Luke's argues that the district court erred by overruling its objection to DeMint-Lee's testimony for lack of foundation for making this kind of opinion.

         Dr. Carl Goldstein was the Herretts' only rebuttal witness. Dr. Goldstein was called to rebut the testimony presented by Dr. Stuart Shankland on behalf of St. Luke's. The Herretts' pretrial witness disclosure stated that "Dr. Goldstein will opine that Dr. Shankland's assessment of the effect of proteinuria and chronic kidney disease on Joyce Herrett's life expectancy is excessive, unreasonable and based on outdated information. Dr. Goldstein will reference materials provided by Dr. Shankland to establish this foundational flaw." St. Luke's contends that the trial court erred by permitting Dr. Goldstein to testify when the pretrial disclosure did not identify which of Dr. Shankland's articles Dr. Goldstein was going to criticize or explain how he intended to utilize Dr. Shankland's articles.

         St. Luke's objected to the Herrett's proposed instruction defining the term "reckless," arguing that the district court should give the instruction found in Idaho Jury Instruction 2.25. The district court gave the instruction proposed by the Herretts, stating that the instruction properly stated the law.

         The jury found the Herretts were entitled to $3, 850, 004.83 in damages. This figure was subsequently reduced by stipulation to reflect contractual adjustments of medical expenses and an amended judgment was entered for $3, 775, 864.21. St. Luke's appeals, arguing that the district court erred in allowing Dr. Wiggins' testimony because it was outside the scope of the expert witness disclosure. St. Luke's also argues that Dr. Goldstein's testimony was not properly disclosed as required by rule, the district court's jury instruction improperly defined recklessness, and Ms. DeMint-Lee's testimony was not supported by proper foundation.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "When reviewing the trial court's evidentiary rulings, this Court applies an abuse of discretion standard." Edmunds v. Kraner, 142 Idaho 867, 871, 136 P.3d 338, 342 (2006). "The Court reviews a trial court's decision admitting or excluding evidence, including the testimony of expert witnesses, under the abuse of discretion standard." White v. Mock, 140 Idaho 882, 888, 104 P.3d 356, 362 (2004). "Whether a witness is sufficiently qualified as an expert to state an opinion is a matter which is largely within the discretion of the trial court." Egbert v. Idaho State Ins. Fund, 125 Idaho 678, 680, 873 P.2d 1332, 1334 (1994) (quoting Sidwell v. William Prym, Inc., 112 Idaho 76, 81, 730 P.2d 996, 1001 (1986)).

         "The decision whether to declare or deny a mistrial is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge if the court determines that an occurrence at trial has prevented a fair trial." Van Brunt v. Stoddard, 136 Idaho 681, 686, 39 P.3d 621, 626 (2001). "After trial is commenced, at any time prior to the rendering of a verdict, the court may declare a mistrial on its own motion or on motion of any party if it determines an occurrence at trial has prevented a fair trial." I.R.C.P. 48.

         In order to determine if the district court abused its discretion this Court looks to see:

Whether the trial court: (1) correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) acted within the outer boundaries of its discretion; (3) acted consistently with the legal standards applicable to the specific choices available to ...

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