Medical Malpractice Claims May Involve “Ordinary Negligence” in New Mexico

Failure to detect medical conditions is a common and often a preventable medical error that can lead to disastrous consequences including wrongful death of the patient. This was the case in the recent New Mexico Court of Appeals case of Richter v. Presbyterian Healthcare.  In this case, the failure was the result of a failure to properly deliver, read and chart lab tests leading to the preventable death of the patient.  

Failure to Properly Detect Leading to Wrongful Death of Patient

The facts are fairly complicated but in a nutshell, the patient went in for surgery to remove a tumor from her adrenal gland. The patient died when she developed a heart arrhythmia during surgery. The arrhythmia was caused by a condition called pheochromocytoma which had been revealed by diagnostic testing during a prior hospitalization.

The diagnostic tests were never acted upon or even read by her physicians. There were a series of missteps by the diagnostic company, the treating physicians and the hospital that led to the failure.

The deceased patient’s husband brought a wrongful death claim for the negligent failure to properly deliver the laboratory tests against the radiology company along with claims of medical negligence against the doctors and hospital.

There were number of motions for summary judgment and rulings thereon. Basically, these motions dealt with the issue of whether the claims involved claims of medical malpractice for which expert testimony was required or ordinary negligence for which it is not. This is very important distinction in medical malpractice cases since a failure to bring an expert when one is required will result in summary judgment against the patient.

Necessary Expert Testimony for Medical Negligence v. Ordinary Negligence

The Court noted that New Mexico, “]t is not mandatory in every case that negligence of the doctor be proved by expert testimony . . . .” Some cases involved breach of the standard of care in the medical community while others involve simple ordinary negligence. The Court explains that ordinary negligence (breach of ordinary care) can be weighed by a jury based upon “common knowledge ordinarily possessed by the average person.”

The Court explained that an expert is required when the alleged act of negligence involves the application of “specialized knowledge or skill to make a judgment call as to the appropriate thing to do or not do, expert testimony will likely be needed… If not, expert testimony is not required.”

Delivery of Medical Records Often Ministerial in Nature

In this case, the Court to address where the delivery of medical records would fall along this spectrum. In some cases, delivery of medical records might be governed by established by medical standards, internal policies, contractual obligations, or government regulations. In cases involving such arguably technical requirements, expert testimony would be required to explain these requirements and the alleged breach to the jury.

On the other hand, some deliveries of records are purely ministerial and require no particular expertise to understand. The failure here amounted to the latter and required no expert testimony in light of the collective testimony of the vice president for operations of the hospital and the medical director of the diagnostic firm that “as a matter of routine procedure, the Lab Results should have been delivered to the ordering physician and the treating physicians.”

Failure to Chart Governed by Ordinary Negligence

The Court had to further address whether patient charting would be governed by ordinary negligence. The Court found that it should stating that there is “a clearly established duty to maintain their patients’ medical charts in good order, and that duty includes posting completed lab tests as received.”

The Court set forth language from the Oklahoma case of Johnson v. Hillcrest Health Center, Inc., to explain the importance of patient charting along with the fact that a jury needs no expert testimony to understand and assess a failure to properly chart:

“The obvious purpose of the charting requirement is to provide a record to assist the physician in properly treating the patient. Physicians depend on the reliability and trustworthiness of the chart. As far as a hospital is concerned, there is no more important record than the chart for indicating the diagnosis, the condition, and the treatment required for patients. In our view, no degree of knowledge or skill is required other than that possessed by the average person to conclude that the applicable standard of care required the hospital to include completed lab tests and lab reports in the patient’s chart to aid the doctor in diagnosing and treating the patient—regardless of whether lab tests are made available on the computer.”

Comparative Negligence

The Court also addressed the respective obligations of the doctors and the hospital stating that the hospital would not be relieved of responsibility for a failure to follow up on lab tests simply because the doctor has this duty. Both the doctor and hospital have a duty to follow up and the failure of one or both is judged by comparative negligence standards.

Contact an Attorney – Medical Malpractice Claims are Complex

This is a very abbreviated summary of the case. The issues are quite complicated. Failure to properly address the distinction and act accordingly in terms of expert testimony can lead to summary judgment. It is essential to contact an experience medical malpractice attorney if a failure to detect or to properly report, deliver, and chart lab tests has caused you or a loved one harm.

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