Nursing Home Wrongful Death Verdict Reviewed by Florida Appellate Court

Expert witnesses help the finders of fact understand complex concepts in a personal injury action. In order to successfully be awarded damages, an injured person must connect the injury to the requested amount. An expert must be qualified to testify as a matter of law, and they may also be scrutinized by the jury and the court. Verdicts can be set aside if a judge concludes a jury could not have rightly entered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff based on the evidence presented.  This is seen in a recent Florida wrongful death appeal, No. 3D16-600.

The estate filed suit against the nursing home that provided the decedent care toward the end of her life. The estate asked for $400,000 for pain and suffering, as well as nearly $91,000 for funeral and medical expenses. The jury found for the estate but only awarded $5,000 in medical expenses and $1,133 for funeral costs. The trial court set aside this award and entered a verdict in favor of the defendant nursing home. The estate appealed.

The appellate court’s majority focused on the expert testimony offered by the plaintiff to help explain the decedent’s medical condition. The physician was an expert in family medicine but did not provide care to the decedent during her life. He provided opinions solely based on a review of her medical records, but many of the ones surrounding larger issues were contradicted by the records he used to form the opinions. The appellate court concluded the central issue was whether or not the expert witness had sufficient evidentiary weight to be submitted to the jury.

During the trial, the physician testified about the lack of care provided by the nursing home before her transfer to a hospital. He opined there were missing entries in the notes kept by the home in the two weeks prior to the decedent’s admission to the hospital. He inferred that in this gap, the patient was not properly monitored, her exacerbated pneumonia went unnoticed, her pneumonia reached a critical phase, and if she had been monitored properly and transferred earlier, she would have lived longer.

The medical records show the decedent was greatly affected by a stroke in 1995, needing assistance for basic functions of life from dressing herself to using the bathroom. The decedent had several physical complications beginning in 2005, including urinary tract infections, earlier cases of pneumonia, urosepsis, and an E. Coli infection. The combination of these maladies required residential care. The decedent lived at the nursing home for 17 years, suffering from dementia and chronic pulmonary disease toward the end of her stay.

The appellate court noted that while there were no additional nursing notes, there were other medical records from the nursing home regarding her care. These show that the decedent was screened for pain multiple times a day and that an x-ray was performed soon after she was diagnosed with pneumonia. The court felt these notes supported the minimal verdict originally awarded by the jury for the estate, but they also validated the trial court’s decision to enter a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the nursing home. The doctor’s opinion of the nursing home’s negligence ended with the assertion that she died of pneumonia, despite the records that asserted she was actually recovering from pneumonia. The decedent’s death certificate provided the cause of death as dementia and end stage pulmonary disease. The court of appeal was unsettled by the fact the expert did not try to reconcile the difference between his assessment and what was found on the death certificate and in the medical records. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the defendant.

The Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson and Weston are experienced personal injury litigators who can help maximize the damages you deserve. For a free, confidential consultation, call 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

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