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New York Court Reverses Spoliation Sanctions Against Medical Center Following Alleged Malfunction of Opioid Medication Pump

It is not unusual for a New York medical malpractice lawsuit to evolve into multi-faceted litigation involving several defendants and multiple theories of liability. For instance, a medical negligence lawsuit against a doctor or hospital could, under certain circumstances, grow to include a possible product liability lawsuit against the maker of an allegedly defective medical device.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently ruled upon by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department, the plaintiffs were a former medical patient and the patient’s husband. According to their complaint, filed in the Supreme Court of Niagara County, the patient was admitted to the defendant medical center for surgery in 2008. After her surgery, the patient was given a patient-controlled analgesia infusion pump that allowed her to self-administer pain medication with the push of a button. The pump was supposed to have a “maximum dosage” feature, but, after using the pump without incident for several hours, the patient suffered an adverse medical event that necessitated her receiving an emergency opioid-reversing medication and being transferred to intensive care for additional treatment.

The plaintiffs filed suit in 2011, seeking compensation for the alleged negligence and medical malpractice of the defendant medical center and others. In an amended complaint, the plaintiffs sought monetary damages from the manufacturer of the pump, but that litigation stagnated because the medical center could not identify which of the 12 pumps it possessed was the pump that allegedly harmed the plaintiff. Eventually, the trial court dismissed the complaint as to the manufacturers, but the appellate court reversed that decision. On remand, the plaintiffs moved for sanctions against the medical center for spoliation of the pump. The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for an adverse inference charge at trial as a sanction for its spoliation of evidence. The medical center appealed.

Decision of the Appellate Court

The appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision. Under the common law doctrine of spoliation of evidence, a party who destroys or negligently loses key evidence can be sanctioned by the trial court. In such a situation, the court has broad discretion in determining the sanction that should be imposed. The party seeking the sanction has the burden of proving that the party who had control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it, that the evidence was destroyed with a culpable state of mind, and that the evidence was relevant to the complaining party’s case at trial.

In the case at hand, the appellate court agreed with the medical center that the patient had failed to prove that it had acted either intentionally or negligently in failing to preserve crucial evidence. In so holding, the court pointed out that the plaintiffs’ allegations that the pump had malfunctioned were not made contemporaneously with the event giving rise to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit but, rather, over two years later. The court also noted that the medical center had submitted evidence that its nursing staff had visually inspected the intravenous bag and determined that the plaintiff had received a cumulative dosage that was far less than the maximum dosage prescribed and that, thus, pursuant to medical center’s normal business practices, the pump was sent to its central services for cleaning and then returned to service along with other pumps, none of which were tracked to particular patients.

Talk to a Seasoned New York Medical Malpractice Lawyer

If you believe that you or a family member has been the victim of medical negligence in Syracuse, Rochester, or elsewhere in New York, you need dependable legal advice. At DeFrancisco & Falgiatano, LLP, our team of experienced New York medical malpractice attorneys can help you get started on holding the responsible party legally liable for your injuries. Call us at 319-479-9000 to schedule an appointment. If you are unable to come into our office to talk about your case, we can arrange to travel to your home or hospital room, so please do not delay in getting the advice that you need.

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