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Rhode Island Supreme Court Personal Injury Decisions-2005-2006

RI Supreme Court Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice   2005-2006 Summary of Decisions written by The Judiciary of the State of Rhode Island:

Charles Lennon v. Dacomed Corporation and National Union Fire Insurance, No. 04-292 (June 23, 2006)

After being implanted with a Dura-II penile prosthesis, the plaintiff, Charles Lennon, complained about discomfort, noise, and keeping the prosthesis in a concealed position.  He initially sued Urohealth Systems, Inc., on a theory of products liability in the United States District Court of Rhode Island.  After a contentious discovery process and two trips to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the parties stipulated to a dismissal with prejudice of the federal court suit.

The plaintiff also had sued Urohealth, Dacomed Corporation (Urohealth’s wholly owned subsidiary) and its insurer, National Union Fire Insurance, in Rhode Island Superior Court, alleging similar claims as those raised in the federal court suit.  After the dismissal was entered in federal court, all three defendants in state court moved for summary judgment, arguing that the doctrine of res judicata precluded plaintiff’s state court action.

The hearing justice granted summary judgment with respect to only Urohealth and indicated that although Dacomed was in privity with Urohealth, the doctrine of res judicata did not apply because the defendants were separate and distinct entities.

A trial ensued and a jury returned a $750,000 verdict for plaintiff.  The defendants moved for a new trial, and, alternatively, to modify the judgment.  The trial justice denied their motion for a new trial, but granted a remittitur; he directed the plaintiff to decide whether to accept a modified judgment of $400,000 or face a new trial on damages.  The plaintiff rejected the modified judgment and consequently, the trial justice ordered a new trial on damages.  The parties cross-appealed.  The plaintiff appealed the trial justice’s granting of a new trial on damages based upon his rejection of the remittitur.  The defendants appealed the denial of their motion for judgment as a matter of law again contending that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel should have barred the plaintiff’s state court action.

The Supreme Court first concluded that National Union was not a proper appellant because it was not specifically named in the notice of appeal as required by Rule 3(c) of the Supreme Court Rules of Appellate Procedure.  The judgment against National Union was remanded to the Superior Court.  The Court then concluded that the plaintiff’s state court action against Dacomed was barred by res judicata because: (1) Dacomed and Urohealth were in privity; (2) both lawsuits had an identity of issues; and (3) the dismissal in federal court was an adjudication on the merits.  Consequently, the plaintiff’s appeal was dismissed.

David N. Riley v. William Stone, M.D., et al, No. 04-224 (June 16, 2006)

This is an appeal by the plaintiff, David N. Riley (plaintiff), from a judgment entered in favor of the defendants, William M. Stone, M.D. (Dr. Stone), and University Physicians Foundation, Inc. in this medical malpractice action.  Specifically, plaintiff assigned error to: (1) the denial of his motion for a new trial based on erroneous jury instructions and (2) the exclusion from evidence of portions of videotaped depositions and doctors’ notes of treating and consulting physicians.

The Supreme Court held that the trial justice’s jury instructions concerning the applicable standard of care were a proper statement of the law.  A physician is under a duty to use the same degree of care as a reasonably competent physician in the same class to which he belongs, acting in similar circumstances.

The Court also held that plaintiff did not provide a sufficient record to enable the Court to address certain appellate contentions or to evaluate the trial justice’s reasons for excluding portions of depositions and medical records.  It is the responsibility of the appellant to furnish the Court with so much of the record, including the transcript, depositions (if any), and relevant exhibits introduced during the proceeding as will enable the Court to decide the issues raised on appeal.  The plaintiff’s failure to provide the Court with this record prevented the Court from performing any meaningful review of the evidentiary rulings.

Margaret Pastore, in her capacity as Administratrix of the Estate of Fred V. Pastore v. Charles Samson, M.D. et, No. 05-110 (June 16, 2006)

On this writ of certiorari, Kent County Memorial Hospital (hospital) requested that the Supreme Court review a decision of a motion justice granting the motion of the plaintiff, Margaret Pastore (plaintiff), administratrix of the estate of Fred V. Pastore (Pastore), whereby the hospital would be required to produce in the course of discovery in this medical malpractice civil suit some 750 pages of documents pertaining to one of its doctors, Charles Samson, M.D.  The hospital argued that the documents were protected by four different privileges:  peer-review, confidential health-care information, board of medical licensure and discipline, and attorney-client.  The Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part:  The Court affirmed the decision with respect to the board of medical licensure and discipline and the peer-review privilege, save document numbered 138, at least portions of which were privileged; and the Court remanded for further consideration the hospital’s assertion of the attorney-client and confidential health-care information privileges.  In doing so, the Court held that our recognition of a corporate negligence cause of action was reconcilable with the peer-review privilege, and that patient complaints were not protected by the peer-review privilege.

Virginia P. Foley v. St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island et al, No. 05-90 (June 14, 2006)

The plaintiff, Virginia P. Foley, instituted a medical malpractice action against St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island, John R. Sullivan, M.D., Bernard Cieniawa, D.O., St. Joseph Hospital Radiology Associates, Inc., A. Hamid Shahinfar, M.D., and Angelo DiCenso, M.D.  Eventually, and for various reasons, the claims against all the defendants were dismissed.

Doctor DiCenso’s motion to dismiss, asserting that the action against him was time-barred by the applicable statute of limitations, was granted first.  Then, summary judgment was entered in favor of Dr. Shahinfar and St. Joseph Hospital Radiology Associates, Inc. when the hearing justice found that Ms. Foley failed to present sufficient evidence regarding the standard of care applicable to a radiologist.  Finally, a justice of the Superior Court ruled favorably on a motion in limine that the remaining defendants filed.  She found that Ms. Foley’s expert was not qualified to testify about causation and she therefore entered judgment as a matter of law in favor of St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island, Dr. Sullivan, and Dr. Cieniawa.  Ms. Foley appealed each of these decisions to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the motion justice’s decision to dismiss Dr. DiCenso because it held that Ms. Foley did not exercise reasonable diligence in discovering his involvement in her treatment.  The Court also agreed that the alleged negligence on the part of Dr. Shahinfar and St. Joseph Hospital Radiology Associates, Inc. was not patently obvious and, therefore, Ms. Foley had the burden, in opposing the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, to present evidence from an expert regarding the applicable standard of care and deviation from that standard of care.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the entry of summary judgment in favor of Dr. Shahinfar and St. Joseph Hospital Radiology Associates, Inc.  Finally, the Court held that the trial justice did not abuse her discretion, but exercised it soundly and judicially, when she ruled that the plaintiff’s expert witness was not qualified to testify on the issue of causation.  Therefore, the Court upheld the entry of judgment as a matter of law in favor of Dr. Cieniawa, Dr. Sullivan, and St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island.

Cara Benaski v. Carl Weinberg, in his capacity as President of the Summit at Warwick Executive Park Condominium Association et al, No. 05-232 (June 12, 2006)

In this slip-and-fall action, the plaintiff, Cara Benaski, appealed from a grant of summary judgment in favor of certain defendants associated with the Warwick Executive Office Park   On appeal, the plaintiff argued that unusual circumstances existed that warranted a departure from the general rule that permits a business invitor a reasonable time after a storm to clear snow and ice.  The Supreme Court, applying the principles addressed in Terry v. Central Auto Radiators, Inc., 732 A.2d 713 (R.I. 1999), held that the plaintiff failed to establish any unusual circumstances and that, therefore, that the defendants were under no duty to remove accumulated snow and ice before a reasonable time after the storm ended.  Consequently, the Supreme Court held that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Virginia Hanson et al v. Edwin Singsen, M.D., No. 04-301 (June 12, 2006)

Virginia Hanson (Hanson) and her husband (collectively plaintiffs) appealed a Superior Court ruling granting judgment as a matter of law in favor of Edwin Singsen, (defendant) on the following grounds: (1) that the plaintiffs failed to prove proximate causation in their medical malpractice claim; (2) that the plaintiffs failed to prove their informed consent claim; and (3) that the statute of limitations barred the plaintiffs’ claim.  The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the trial justice, holding that the statute of limitations barred the plaintiffs’ claim because during the eight years between Hanson’s surgery and the filing of her lawsuit, the discovery rule did not serve to toll the three-year statute of limitations for medical malpractice.  Having held that the statute of limitations barred the plaintiffs’ claim, the Court did not reach the other issues presented on appeal.

Marguerite Andreoni et al v. Aaron Ainsworth et al, No. 05-255 (June 9, 2006)

In this negligence suit stemming from an automobile accident, the plaintiffs, Marguerite Andreoni, Lauren Andreoni, and Candace Dufresne (collectively plaintiffs), appealed from an entry of summary judgment in the Superior Court in favor of two of the defendants, Carolyn Ainsworth (Carolyn) and Volvo Finance North America (collectively defendants).  On the determinative issue of whether the driver of the automobile had consent to operate that automobile, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 31-33-7 and the fact that the automobile was registered in Carolyn’s name, the plaintiffs had set forth prima facie evidence that the driver operated the automobile with Carolyn’s consent.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the entry of summary judgment because the plaintiff had created a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of consent.

Raymond Lacey et al v. Jan Reitsma, in his capacity as Director of State of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management et al, No. 05-226 (June 6, 2006)

The plaintiffs in this personal injury action, who are the parents of a minor child who was injured while riding his bicycle at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 6, 2000, brought suit against the State of Rhode Island and the State of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.  The plaintiffs appealed from the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, contending that the trial justice erroneously applied the Recreational Use Statute, G.L. 1956 chapter 6 of title 32.

The plaintiffs further argued that even if that statute applied to the state, the immunity from liability that it provided was not absolute and contained an exception for “willful or malicious” conduct that should have operated to expose the state to liability in this case.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment pursuant to the unambiguous language of the Recreational Use Statute, which had been amended to include the state and municipalities within its purview, and pursuant to the equally unambiguous nature of the relevant precedent.  The Supreme Court also held that the “willful or malicious” exception to the Recreational Use Statute did not apply, since the defendants had pointed to no evidence that these defendants had discovered young R.J. in a position of peril and then failed to warn him against the potentially dangerous condition.

Virginia Mead et al v. Papa Razzi et al, No. 04-317 (June 2, 2006)

After this Court issued its opinion in Mead v. Papa Razzi Restaurant, 840 A.2d 1103 (R.I. 2004) (Mead I), reversing a trial justice’s grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of the defendants, a second jury trial was held.  That second trial resulted in a judgment of the Superior Court in the plaintiff’s favor pursuant to a jury verdict of negligence on the part of the defendants.

On appeal, defendants argued that the trial justice’s instruction to the jury with respect to the issue of spoliation contained three separate legal errors, each constituting reversible error.  Specifically, defendants argued that the spoliation instruction improperly permitted the jury (1) to determine that defendants’ failure to create an accident report constituted spoliation; (2) to conclude that there had been spoliation of evidence without first finding that there had been a deliberate or negligent destruction or loss of evidence; and (3) to “pyramid” inferences in arriving at its finding of negligence.

The defendants also argued on appeal that the trial justice erred in denying their motion for judgment as a matter of law and that the trial justice abused her discretion by refusing to allow defendants to call one of their former employees as a witness.

This Court held that the trial justice’s instruction allowing the jury to conclude that there had been spoliation of evidence was appropriate in light of its earlier holding in Mead I.  The Court further held that the trial justice was correct in denying defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law because there were issues of fact raised at trial upon which reasonable minds could differ.  The Court did not address those of the defendants’ arguments which had not been properly preserved at trial.

Pablo Urena v. Theta Products, Inc., d/b/a Sprague Industries, No. 04-291 (June 2, 2006)

The plaintiff, Pablo Urena, appealed after a Superior Court magistrate granted summary judgment in favor of Theta Products, Inc., d/b/a Sprague Industries (Theta).  In October 1998, Urena was working for a temporary employment agency and injured his finger during a work assignment at Theta.  He later filed suit, alleging that his injury was the result of Theta’s negligence.  The Superior Court held that Theta was immune from suit under G.L. 1956 § 28-29-20 of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

As grounds for his appeal, Urena argued that Theta was not immune from suit and that the Superior Court erred in denying his motion to default and his motion to compel a more responsive answer to an interrogatory.  The Supreme Court held that Theta was immune from suit because it was a special employer under the Workers’ Compensation Act, and its immunity was not affected by the fact that Urena’s injury had occurred shortly after he returned from a coffee break.  The Court further held that Urena’s motion to default was properly denied because it was filed after Theta had filed its answer.  Finally, the Court held that Urena’s discovery motion was without merit and ultimately was rendered moot by its holding that Theta was entitled to summary judgment in its favor.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.

Russell Kraczkowski et al v. Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Company, No. 05-165 (June 2, 2006)

The plaintiffs, Russell Kraczkowski and Rose Kraczkowski, on behalf of their minor child, Heather Kraczkowski, appealed from an order denying their motion to vacate an arbitration award.  The plaintiffs contended that they should not have been made to proceed with arbitration on Heather’s claim for underinsured motorist benefits from the defendant, Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Company, because they did not unequivocally elect to proceed with arbitration.  The Court disagreed, concluding that the plaintiffs unequivocally demanded arbitration in a letter written to the defendant in November 2001.  Moreover, the plaintiffs selected an arbitrator and, but for numerous continuances spanning six months, the arbitration would have concluded.  Consequently, the plaintiffs were barred by G.L. 1956 § 10-3-2 from opting out of arbitration and pursuing Heather’s claim in Superior Court.

Legal Notice per Rules of Professional Responsibility: The Rhode Island Supreme Court licenses all lawyers and attorneys in the general practice of law, but does not license or certify any lawyer / attorney as an expert or specialist in any field of practice. While this firm maintains joint responsibility, most cases of this type are referred to other attorneys for principle responsibility.

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