HOW DOES A PLAINTIFF PROVE INADEQUATE MEDICAL CARE CAUSED A DISEASE OR CONDITION WITH MULTIPLE KNOWN CAUSES?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Bacon v. Mercy Hospital of Ft. Scott, 243 Kan. 303, 756 P.2d 416 (1988).
This case addresses the following issue:
How does a plaintiff prove inadequate medical care caused a disease or condition with multiple known causes?
A claim for medical malpractice is really just a claim for professional negligence. Id. at 307. Thus, a plaintiff must prove four elements to succeed in bringing a negligence claim: (1) defendant owed a duty to provide medical care at the accepted professional standard; (2) defendant failed to offer medical care up to that standard; (3) plaintiff suffered injury or a medical condition; and (4) defendant’s substandard care caused plaintiff’s injury or condition. Id. In this case, the court dealt with when a plaintiff has produced sufficient evidence to prove the element of causation. Id. at 308. The court found that, because medical causation is beyond the understanding of jurors, only Plaintiff’s expert witness could provide the needed evidence, and Plaintiff’s expert provided no opinion that Defendant’s substandard care cause Plaintiff’s cerebral palsy. Id.
Plaintiff was born with cerebral palsy. Id. at 304. Defendants were the hospital where Plaintiff was born and the doctor that oversaw Plaintiff’s birth. Id. Plaintiff’s heartbeat became irregular while her mother was in labor, prompting an induced delivery. Id. Plaintiff was born not breathing, and was transferred to an intensive care unit. Id. The treating physicians attempt to start Plaintiff’s breathing for 30-45 minutes. Id. at 306. Rather than using a breathing bag, Plaintiff was largely supported with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which Plaintiff alleges was a breach of professional standards. Id. Plaintiff ultimately developed cerebral palsy, which she attributes to the period of oxygen deprivation following her birth. Id.
The court began by noting that “negligence is never presumed and may not be inferred merely from an adverse result from treatment.” Id. at 307. Additionally, when medical causation is at issue, expert testimony must be provided because “the average layman from common knowledge or experience” cannot make a proper determination requiring medical causation. Id. It is not sufficient that the expert offer generalizations, but must instead provide opinions as to the actual circumstances at issue. Id. at 307-08.
In this case, Plaintiff had presented opinions of two experts. Id. at 308. However, neither expert directly opined that the lack of oxygen brought about by Defendant’s negligence caused Plaintiff’s cerebral palsy. Id. at 314. They only spoke hypothetically of causes and both agreed that several cases of the condition are caused by unknown factors. Id. This testimony was insufficient to bridge the gap from substandard care administered to Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s injuries. Id. Thus, Plaintiffs claim failed because insufficient evidence established each of the four elements. Id.