Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

A common legal issue that arises in the context of imprisonment or other forms of detention is liability for failing to provide or negligently providing medical care to those detained. Irrespective of the location of medical malpractice, however, common evidentiary standards required for medical malpractice actions apply. These issues are at the core of the Southern District of Florida’s recent decision in Segundo v. United States, which involves claims alleging negligence on the part of the medical staff leading to the cardiac death of a detainee at Krome Detention Center in South Florida.

The detainee had been transferred to Krome Detention Center in 2010, and his Transfer Summary noted his severe, preexisting diabetes. At the time of booking, the detainee underwent a medical evaluation that corroborated this prior medical history of diabetes. Following admission, the detainee continued to take oral diabetic medications, and his blood glucose level was checked twice a day. The admission medical evaluation also included a screening EKG, the results of which came back normal and did not indicate any acute or chronic myocardial ischemic changes or other findings associated with coronary artery disease. From the time of his arrival until the day before his death, the detainee did not complain of chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, or other symptoms associated with cardiac dysfunction.

However, the day before his death, Krome medical staff evaluated the detainee for a sore throat, runny nose, and cough. The day after, the detainee stated he felt ill but was nonetheless communicative and able to move. While staff was taking the detainee to the Urgent Care Center at the Krome compound, he suffered an arrhythmia and died. A autopsy report found the detainee’s cause of death to be severe atheroscleros in the left anterior descending coronary artery. Given the normal EKG just days before the death, no evidence in the record suggested that medical staff at Krome should have predicted the subsequent cardiac death. Following the detainee’s death, the personal representative for his estate brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the United States under the Federal Torts Claims Act, alleging negligence on the part of Krome’s officers, agents, and employees.

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With a seemingly endless coastline, Florida is a haven for water-based recreational activities. As the Third District Court of Appeal noted at the conclusion of its recent decision in Diodato v. Islamorada Asset Management, Inc., many Floridians and tourists in the state commonly enjoy recreational activities such as jet-skiing, para-sailing, and scuba diving. Although the vast majority of those who engage in these activities do so without incurring any injury, they remain hazardous activities, and participation does come with some degree of  risk. In light of the attendant dangers posed by these and other forms of recreation, virtually every business in this field requires customers to sign contracts containing provisions commonly known as exculpatory clauses, which state that the customer assumes the risk associated with the activity. This practice is at the center of the controversy in Diodato, which involved the unfortunate drowning of an Arizonan woman during a deep-water wreck scuba excursion off the Florida Keys.

The aforementioned drowning occurred on April 15, 2010, although this was not the decedent’s first time diving. In fact, she had obtained PADI certification in Arizona and had previously gone on several other dives with the principal defendant in this lawsuit, Key Dives, an Islamorada-based recreational scuba diving company. The fatal dive, however, was an advanced deep-water wreck dive, which was unlike the open water reef dives she had previously done with Key Dives instructors. It is common practice at Key Dives for customers to sign a liability release prior to each dive. However, on this day of this dive, the decedent arrived late to the dock and was not required to sign a waiver. After submerging about 10 feet, the decedent signaled to one of the instructors that she would like to surface. The instructor followed her up but did not help her back on board the boat. While trying to board the boat, the decedent lost hold of the boat’s granny line and drifted away. In response, the captain signaled an alarm, and after a brief search, the decedent was found floating, but she had drowned.

Following the incident, the estate of the decedent brought a wrongful death action against Key Dives and several of its employees and agents. Although the decedent had not signed a liability waiver on the day of that particular dive, the defendants argued that other liability waivers signed by the decedent in connection with other Key Dives diving events covered the incident at hand and shielded the company from liability. Specifically, in August 2009, the decedent signed a liability waiver before a series of six open-water reef dives and initialed a provision on the contract that stated that the release was valid for one year from the date it was signed. In addition, the day before the deep-water dive, the defendant went on an open-water reef dive that was being used as preparation for the upcoming advanced dive and again signed a liability release. This release was identical to the one signed in August of the year before, but the decedent on this occasion did not initial the one-year provision. Although Key Dives intended for the decedent to sign a more thorough release form on the day of the fatal dive that covered particularities of the deep-water excursion, the decedent did not sign this release, since she, as mentioned above, arrived late, and the crew did not wish to delay other diving customers. Following discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and held that the August 2009 and April 2010 releases covered the fatal diving event at issue, and, accordingly, the decedent had released Key Dives and its employees from liability.

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In the aftermath of tragedy, it is a natural reaction to assign blame to others, whether attribution is justified or not. This impulse is at the heart of the Fourth District Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Knight v. Merhige, in which the court held that the parents of a man who fatally shot several relatives at a family gathering on Thanksgiving of 2009 could not be held liable for their son’s conduct. Although the decision will likely do little to mend fractured intra-familial ties, the Fourth District’s holding demarcates a clear line with respect to when someone may be held liable for the conduct of another.

As noted above, the suit at issue follows a tragic incident on November 26, 2009. On that day, the son of the defendants in this case, who was 35 at the time, retrieved a gun during an annual family get-together and fatally shot four of his relatives, including both of his sisters, and seriously injured another. After the shooting, the son pled guilty to the murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The son had a long history of violence and mental health issues and had on several previous occasions threatened and assaulted members of his family. Although he had been prohibited from attending Thanksgiving festivities the year before at the request of the relatives who were hosting, his parents invited him to attend in 2009 without either seeking permission of the hosts or informing other family members. Until shortly before the shooting, the son lived with the parents, but his parents had recently elected to set up him up in his own condominium while continuing to provide him with financial support, some of which was used to procure firearms. A housekeeper who cleaned the son’s condominium and routinely reported to parents informed them that he had ceased attending mental health treatment and taking medication.

Given the context of the son’s assault, relatives brought three separate wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against the parents, which were consolidated for appeal. Although they were distinct, the suits were predicated on similar theories of negligence. Specifically, the lawsuits alleged the following:  1) by furtively inviting their son, the parents created a “foreseeable zone of risk” for the relatives, and they failed to exercise prudent care in managing the risk they created; and 2) the parents had a “special relationship” to their son such that they had to duty to exercise reasonable care in his “supervision, guidance, control, direction, security, monitoring and management,” and failure to exercise reasonable care amounted to a breach of this duty. The trial court dismissed each of the suits, noting the general rule that “there is no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent him from causing physical harm to another,” and holding that the respective plaintiffs had failed to overcome the burden of demonstrating a special relationship that would give rise to a legal duty to control the son’s conduct. The plaintiffs appealed the dismissals.

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Typically, the thought of conceding liability in a negligence suit runs counter to conventional legal strategy. In fact, attorneys often spend considerable time trying to counteract even banal admissions that occur prior to formal litigation that could be construed as declarations of liability. However, a recent case coming from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals demonstrates how a proactive admission of guilt can occasionally work in a defendant’s favor.

In Swanson v. Robles, the Second District Court of Appeals held that allowing evidence of a defendant’s drug use during the first phase of a trial when the defendant had already admitted liability for both compensatory and punitive damages was reversible error. The case arose from a traffic accident in October 2008. A truck being driven by the defendant struck a vehicle owned by the City of Tampa and a city employee who was unloading traffic counters at the rear of the vehicle. The city employee died immediately following the collision, and his estate brought a wrongful death action against the driver, seeking both compensatory damages for the deceased’s widow and compensatory and punitive damages for the estate. The defendant brought a motion to bifurcate the trial, so that evidence of his drug use (Xanax, methadone, and marijuana) would not be admitted and prejudice the jury. In light of his admission of liability, the defendant argued that such evidence was no longer probative with respect to determining whether or not he was liable for compensatory damages and punitive damages or for determining the amount of compensatory damages. The evidence was not excluded, and the defendant brought an appeal, arguing that permitting the evidence was in error.

The Second District Court of Appeal agreed. The Court found that, since the defendant had conceded liability with respect to both compensatory and punitive damages, evidence of his drug use was no longer relevant for determining liability for either sort of damages or with respect to determining the amount of compensatory damages. Although compensatory damages include “pain and suffering,” the court held that possible knowledge of drug use was not probative for determining the amount of damages reflecting loss of companionship and protection. In addition, the court held that, while evidence of drug use may be probative with respect to determining the amount of punitive damages, the amount of those damages would be handled in the second stage of the bifurcated trial, and thus the evidence of the drug use only served to inflame the jury during the first stage and lead to a possibly higher assessment of compensatory damages.

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After months of anticipation, the Supreme Court of Florida has issued its much-awaited decision in Estate of McCall v. United States of America. In a heavily divided opinion that spans nearly 100 pages, the majority of the court held that Florida’s statutorily imposed caps on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical negligence actions violate the right to equal protection afforded by the Florida Constitution. Although family members of the deceased person who died while receiving medical care from Air Force clinicians will welcome the news, the split decision leaves many unanswered questions that will likely need to be hashed out in other decisions.

In February of 2006, the deceased, McCall, was receiving care from family practice clinicians at a United States Air Force clinic when test results showed that her blood pressure was high and that she was suffering from severe preeclampsia, which required that labor be induced immediately. McCall eventually gave birth, but she later went into shock and cardiac arrest as a result of severe blood loss that occurred during the course of her labor and several associated treatments. Following this episode, McCall never regained consciousness and was removed from life support shortly thereafter.

This case arrived at the Supreme Court of Florida in somewhat atypical fashion. This wrongful death action was originally brought in Federal District Court, and the United States was found liable for McCall’s death. The federal court determined that there were economic damages amounting to nearly $ 1 million and non-economic damages amounting to $2 million, including $500,000 for the McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of McCall’s parents. Despite this finding, the Federal Tort Claims Act states that damages are to be determined using the law of the state where the tortious act occurred. Accordingly, the District Court applied Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical negligence actions, codified as § 766.118 of the Florida Statues. The law limits non-economic damage recovery from all defendants to $1 million in this type of suit, irrespective of the number of claimants. The decision was appealed, and the Federal Appeals Court upheld the application of the cap on damages, holding the cap did not constitute a taking under either Florida law or federal law and did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, since federal courts avoid rendering decisions with respect to unsettled state law, the federal Appeals Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify several questions to the Supreme Court of Florida regarding the interpretation of Florida constitutional law .

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