252 So.3d 1143 (Fla. 2018), SC16-931, Morris v. Muniz

Docket Nº:SC16-931
Citation:252 So.3d 1143, 43 Fla.L.Weekly S 342
Opinion Judge:PARIENTE, J.
Party Name:Tuyuana L. MORRIS, etc., Petitioner, v. Orlando S. MUNIZ, M.D., et al., Respondents.
Attorney:John S. Mills, Courtney Brewer, and Andrew D. Manko of The Mills Firm, P.A., Tallahassee, Florida, for Petitioner Peter D. Webster and Christine Davis Graves of Carlton Fields, Tallahassee, Florida, for Respondent Bay Hospital d/b/a Gulf Coast Medical Center Clifford C. Higby and Kevin Barr of Br...
Judge Panel:Canady, C.J., filed dissenting opinion in which Polston and Lawson, JJ., concurred. Judge Swanson dissented with opinion, arguing: LEWIS, QUINCE, and LABARGA, JJ., concur. CANADY, C.J., dissents with an opinion, in which POLSTON and LAWSON, JJ., concur. CANADY, C.J., dissenting. POLSTON and LAWSO...
Case Date:September 06, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of Florida

Page 1143

252 So.3d 1143 (Fla. 2018)

43 Fla.L.Weekly S 342

Tuyuana L. MORRIS, etc., Petitioner,

v.

Orlando S. MUNIZ, M.D., et al., Respondents.

No. SC16-931

Supreme Court of Florida

September 6, 2018

Canady, C.J., filed dissenting opinion in which Polston and Lawson, JJ., concurred.

Page 1144

Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Direct Conflict of Decisions, First District - Case No. 1D14-3987 (Jackson County)

John S. Mills, Courtney Brewer, and Andrew D. Manko of The Mills Firm, P.A., Tallahassee, Florida, for Petitioner

Peter D. Webster and Christine Davis Graves of Carlton Fields, Tallahassee, Florida, for Respondent Bay Hospital d/b/a Gulf Coast Medical Center

Clifford C. Higby and Kevin Barr of Bryant & Higby, Chartered, Panama City, Florida; and William D. Horgan and Michael J. Thomas of Pennington, P.A., Tallahassee, Florida, for Respondents Stephen G. Smith, M.D., Orlando S. Muniz, M.D., and Marianna OB/GYN Associates, Inc.

Jaken E. Roane of Guilday, Simpson, West, Hatch, Lowe & Roane, P.A., Tallahassee, Florida, for Respondent Jackson Hospital

Philip M. Burlington and Adam Richardson of Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, Florida, Amicus Curiae Florida Justice Association

Travase L. Erickson of Saalfield Shad Law Firm, Jacksonville, Florida, and Kansas R. Gooden of Boyd & Jenerette, P.A., Jacksonville, Florida, Amicus Curiae Florida Defense Lawyers Association

OPINION

PARIENTE, J.

Page 1145

Following the death of a twenty-year-old woman three days after giving birth to a stillborn child, the trial court dismissed the personal representative’s wrongful death medical malpractice action, determining that her presuit medical expert was not "qualified" to provide a medical expert opinion under section 766.102, Florida Statutes (2011). The trial court also dismissed the action based on its finding that the personal representative failed to comply with the informal presuit discovery process for medical malpractice claims in violation of section 766.205, Florida Statutes (2011). Significantly, in dismissing under this basis, the trial court made no finding that any perceived noncompliance with the discovery process resulted in prejudice to the Defendants.1

Reviewing both bases for dismissal for an abuse of discretion and without addressing the issue of prejudice, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed. Morris v. Muniz, 189 So.3d 348, 351 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016). Other district courts of appeal have reviewed a trial court’s dismissal of a medical malpractice action for failure to obtain a qualified presuit medical expert de novo. See, e.g., Edwards v. Sunrise Ophthalmology Asc, LLC, 134 So.3d 1056, 1057 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013); Holden v. Bober, 39 So.3d 396, 400 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010); Apostolico v. Orlando Reg’l Health Care Sys., Inc., 871 So.2d 283, 286 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004).

The first conflict issue in this case requires us to determine the proper standard of review of a dismissal of a medical malpractice action based on the trial court’s determination that the plaintiff’s presuit medical expert was not qualified to provide a medical expert opinion. The second conflict issue requires us to consider whether a finding of prejudice must be made before the trial court can dismiss a medical malpractice action as a sanction for a plaintiff’s failure to comply with the informal presuit discovery process.2

Page 1146

To resolve these issues, we consider two guiding principles. First, the purpose of the medical malpractice presuit investigation is to "facilitate evaluation of the claim." § 766.205(1), Fla. Stat. (2011). Indeed, as we have explained, the presuit process was created to "facilitate the expedient, and preferably amicable, resolution of medical malpractice claims." Williams v. Oken, 62 So.3d 1129, 1133 n.1 (Fla. 2011) (citation omitted); see § 766.201(2), Fla. Stat. (2011) ("It is the intent of the Legislature to provide a plan for prompt resolution of medical negligence claims."). Second, this Court must construe the medical malpractice presuit screening requirements "in a manner that favors access to courts." Patry v. Capps, 633 So.2d 9, 13 (Fla. 1994) (citing Weinstock v. Groth, 629 So.2d 835, 838 (Fla. 1993) ).

For the reasons that follow, we hold that, where the facts regarding the presuit expert’s qualifications are unrefuted, the proper standard of review of a trial court’s dismissal of a medical malpractice action based on its determination that the plaintiff’s presuit expert witness was not qualified is de novo. Additionally, we hold that, before a medical malpractice action can be dismissed based on a trial court’s finding that the plaintiff or plaintiff’s counsel failed to comply with the informal presuit discovery process for medical malpractice actions, the trial court must find that such noncompliance prejudiced the defendant. This holding is consistent with our precedent, which makes clear that before an action can be dismissed for a plaintiff’s failure to comply with discovery, the trial court must find that the plaintiff’s noncompliance prejudiced the defendant. See, e.g., Ham v. Dunmire, 891 So.2d 492, 499 (Fla. 2004); Kukral v. Mekras, 679 So.2d 278, 279 (Fla. 1996). On appeal, the reviewing court should determine whether there was, in fact, a discovery violation and whether that violation prejudiced the defendant. To hold otherwise would not only deprive plaintiffs of their constitutional right to access the courts but would also frustrate the Legislature’s intent in enacting the medical malpractice statutory scheme.

In this case, because the record demonstrates that Morris’s presuit expert was qualified, and because the record does not establish that the Defendants suffered any prejudice for the alleged noncompliance with discovery, we conclude that the trial court erred in dismissing Morris’s action. Accordingly, we quash the First District’s decision and remand with instructions to reinstate Morris’s complaint.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This case arises out of a medical malpractice wrongful death action brought by Tuyuana L. Morris, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Shunteria S. McIntyre, the decedent. As this case was dismissed before the opportunity for formal discovery, the facts set forth below, regarding the events that led to the decedent’s death, are taken from the complaint and the affidavit of Morris’s presuit expert.

On October 22, 2008, the decedent, who was pregnant, was accepted as a patient at Marianna OB/GYN Associates, Inc., for prenatal (obstetric) care by Dr. Orlando S. Muniz. Over the next three months, the decedent visited Dr. Muniz and Jackson Hospital numerous times with complaints of nausea and vomiting. By December 17, 2008, the decedent had lost twenty-six pounds since her October 22 visit; by December 29, the decedent had lost a total of thirty-six pounds.

On January 18, 2009, the decedent went to GCMC, complaining of, among other things, mouth sores and blisters, vomiting, and dizziness. She could not eat, walk, or use the restroom, was suffering hallucinations,

Page 1147

and was unable to detect movement of her unborn baby. On January 21, the decedent delivered a stillborn baby at GCMC. After delivery, the decedent underwent a surgical procedure— dilation and curettage. Hours after the surgery, the decedent was discharged from GCMC by Dr. Stephen G. Smith and advised to return for a follow-up appointment in three weeks.

Three days later, on January 24, 2009, the decedent collapsed at home. She was transported to a nearby hospital where she died. An autopsy revealed that the decedent’s cause of death was "Klebsiella Pneumoniae Septicemia along with contributing causes [of] recent Intrauterine fetal demise and Severe Acute Diarrhea."

Prior to filing the complaint, Morris provided the Defendants with a notice of intent to initiate medical malpractice litigation and a verified written medical expert opinion, as required by section 766.203(2), Florida Statutes (2011). The expert opinion was provided by Dr. Margaret M. Thompson, who attested in a sworn affidavit that she was a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist. Dr. Thompson first obtained board certification in 1984 and was thereafter recertified in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009. Over the course of her thirty-year career, she delivered more than 14,000 babies, had been "Chief of the OB-GYN department at a large medical center, Chief of Staff at a small women’s specialty hospital, and member of hospital-wide peer review committees." According to her affidavit, Dr. Thompson received her Juris Doctorate in 2007 and her Master’s in Public Affairs in 2008. She also swore that she "was engaged in full-time patient care until March 2008." Although Dr. Thompson stated in her affidavit that she was now retired due to arthritis in her hands, she was currently licensed to practice medicine in Texas.

Upon receiving Morris’s notice of intent to initiate medical malpractice litigation and Dr. Thompson’s affidavit, the Defendants requested additional information related to Dr. Thompson’s qualifications, including a detailed employment history for Dr. Thompson from January 2001 through the present, the number of hours per week Dr. Thompson devoted to the active clinical practice of the same or similar specialty field, and the number of babies Dr. Thompson delivered each year from 2006 through 2009. Morris responded to the Defendants by stating, "See Affidavit of Dr. Margaret Thompson; please also see medical records as provided by Jackson Hospital as to treatment provided or the lack thereof."3

Thereafter, Morris filed this action, alleging that the Defendants were negligent in,...

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