The North Carolina Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether expert testimony justified an “intervening cause” jury instruction when two procedures by different surgeons may have negligently caused a patient’s harm. The court was also asked to decide whether a defense expert gave improper standard of care testimony. The appellate court in Hampton v. Hearn rejected both challenges and affirmed a defense verdict.
Facts of the Case
Delacy Miles had an angioplasty and stent placement. The procedure unblocked a vein that was likely blocked because of catheter placements related to her dialysis. Dr. Andrew Hearn performed the surgery.
Dr. Hearn placed the stent in the innominate vein. Part of the stent protruded into the superior vena cava, the main blood vessel that enters the heart from the right side.
Three days later, Miles needed a permacath placement to create new access for her dialysis treatments. Dr. Gregory Schnier passed a catheter through the superior vena cava. He was unaware that Dr. Hearn had placed a stent at the junction of the innominate vein and the superior vena cava.
The procedure pushed the stent into the chamber of Miles’ heart known as the right ventricle. Miles began to experience a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) during the procedure. Doctors discovered the broken stent in her right ventricle and transferred her to a different hospital, where a fractured piece of the stent was removed from her heart.
Miles was hospitalized for about a week as she recovered from the surgery. About a week after her discharge, she was hospitalized for a few more days to treat bleeding from the dialysis site. She then entered a nursing home, where she died from unrelated causes.
Miles’ estate sued Dr. Hearn and other parties for medical malpractice. Dr. Hearn was the only defendant at the time of trial.
Miles’ estate called Dr. Michael Dahn as its standard of care expert. Dr. Dahn testified that Dr. Hearn breached the standard of care by allowing the stent to protrude too far into the superior vena cava. He agreed that it is acceptable for a stent to extend into the superior vena cava, but considered it problematic for the stent to be positioned more than one or two millimeters into that blood vessel.
Dr. Dahn testified that Dr. Hearns’ stent placement breached the standard of care that applies to the procedure. Dr. Dahn also testified that the stent was sheared in half during the catheter insertion, causing the broken stent to enter Miles’ heart. In Dr. Dahn’s opinion, that harm was caused by Dr. Hearns’ breach of the standard of care.
Two standard of care witnesses, Dr. Steve Powell and Dr. Ray Workman, testified for Dr. Hearn. They both testified that Dr. Hearns followed an appropriate standard of care. The depositions of two other defense experts, one of whom testified as to causation, were also offered as evidence.
A key issue in the case was whether Dr. Schnier was negligent and whether his intervening negligence absolved Dr. Hearn of blame. Two defense experts opined that Dr. Hearn could not have foreseen that part of the stent would sheer off if another doctor passed a catheter through the superior vena cava.
While Dr. Dahn testified that another doctor’s decision to pass a catheter through the superior vena cava was foreseeable, he also testified that Dr. Schnier breached the standard of care by failing to determine the position of the stent before passing a catheter through the vein.
Based on that expert testimony, the court instructed the jury that it should not find Dr. Hearn negligent if the harm was solely caused by a subsequent, intervening act of negligence. The appellate court found no error in giving that instruction.
Causation Expert Testimony
Miles’ estate objected to the expert testimony of Dr. Michael Rinaldi. Although Dr. Rinaldi was designated as a causation expert, he was not designated as a standard of care expert. The estate contended that he gave impermissible testimony about the standard of care when he was asked if there was “anything unusual” about the stent placement. Dr. Rinaldi responded that the stent was placed pursuant to a “normal procedure” that he had followed himself.
The appellate court did not decide whether the testimony was erroneously admitted — it clearly was, since Dr. Rinaldi gave an opinion about the method of stent placement normally used by surgeons like himself — but concluded that any error was cured by the court’s instruction. Before playing the video of Dr. Rinaldi’s testimony, the judge instructed the jury that Dr. Rinaldi was not providing an opinion about the standard of care.
Why the judge did not simply excise the objectionable testimony from the video is unclear. Perhaps the judge was not asked to do so. That would have been a more effective means of assuring a fair verdict than reliance on a presumption that juries follow the instructions provided by the court. The presumption is contrary to human experience, but appellate courts invoke it routinely.
Satisfied that the jurors dutifully disregarded the improper standard of care testimony, the court of appeals affirmed the verdict in favor of Dr. Hearn. This was ultimately a case of experts who disagreed. Given the court’s rulings, the jury was entitled to credit the defense experts.