Florida District Appellate Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Hospital in Wrongful Death Case

When filing a Florida wrongful death case, an estate must attempt to name all of the claims of injury against all parties. Opportunities to correct or add claims or parties in a complaint exist but must be done within a statutorily specified amount of time. A recent Fourth District Court of Appeal decision provides insight into the timing and appropriateness of these types of additions.

The personal representative of the estate filed suit against the hospital and treating physician, alleging both were responsible for her husband’s negligent care, which led to his death. The estate first connected the doctor’s actions to the hospital by asserting he was working under the scope of agency of the hospital. It then moved to allege the hospital owed her husband a duty to exercise due care in its hiring and retaining of independent contractor physicians like the doctor who provided care to the decedent.

After the amendment to the complaint, the hospital filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the estate was trying to raise a new cause of action. The hospital stated the amendment was not related to the agency claim and was barred by the statute of limitations. The representative countered the original claim was not centered around the concept of agency, and there were direct allegations of negligence against the hospital. The estate asserted there was no basis for the defendant to believe it was making a claim the hospital was only responsible for the injuries, based on its relationship as an employer alone. The trial court allowed the amendment to stand.

Following this allowance, both sides went into additional discovery. Several requests were made by the hospital to the estate for admissions to narrow down the estate’s theory of negligence against the hospital. In one of the responses, the representative stated she was not pursuing an agency claim against the hospital. Soon after providing this admission, the new counsel for the representative discovered the admission made was incorrect and requested the court to grant an opportunity to correct to reflect the true nature of the agency claim. The estate pointed out to the court amendments should be granted liberally unless there is prejudice to the opposing party.

The court chose to deny the representative’s motion to amend and later granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The defendant’s motion argued there was nothing in the evidence that would support the allegation the hospital was negligent. The representative conceded the summary judgment on direct negligence but insisted there was still a viable claim through vicarious liability. The estate appealed.

The appellate court looked at Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.370, which allows a party to serve another party a written request for admission of truth on any matter within the scope of rule 1.280(b). Part b of 1.370 provides the trial court the ability to grant a party’s motion to withdraw or amend. Any review of a trial court’s determination will be for an abuse of discretion. Since the representative conceded the hospital wasn’t directly negligent, it looked at the admission made that the doctor acted as the hospital’s agent. Even though the first attorney representing the estate walked back from the claim of negligence as an agency-based cause of action, the second counsel immediately sought to correct this perception upon hire.

The appellate court noted the pleadings were not closed, the parties were still in the discovery phase, and the matter had not been scheduled for trial. The second counsel went as far as offering additional discovery related to agency and the ability to depose any witness. The court of appeal ruled the defendant was not prejudiced by this amendment, and therefore summary judgment was improper. The order was rescinded, and the estate was allowed to proceed with its wrongful death action.

The Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson & Weston will vigilantly pursue all avenues of legal relief to maximize the damages you deserve. Call our office today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

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