Cantore v. W. Boca Med. Ctr., Inc.

Decision Date26 April 2018
Docket NumberNo. SC15-1926,SC15-1926
Citation254 So.3d 256
Parties Alexis CANTORE, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. WEST BOCA MEDICAL CENTER, INC., etc., et al., Respondents.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Philip M. Burlington and Andrew A. Harris of Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, Florida; Scott Schlesinger and Linda A. Alley of Schlesinger Law Offices, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for Petitioner

Bruce M. Ramsey and Donna Krusbe of Billing, Cochran, Lyles, Mauro & Ramsey, P.A., West Palm Beach, Florida; Elliot H. Scherker, Julissa Rodriguez, and Stephanie L. Varela of Greenberg Traurig, P.A., Miami, Florida; Scott Solomon and Norman Waas of Falk, Waas, Hernandez, Cortina, Solomon & Bonner, P.A., Coral Gables, Florida, for Respondent

CORRECTED OPINION

PER CURIAM.

Because the treating physician's deposition testimony regarding how he would have treated Alexis Cantore had she arrived at Miami Children's Hospital earlier was inadmissible, we quash the Fourth District Court of Appeal's decision in Cantore v. West Boca Medical Center, Inc. , 174 So.3d 1114 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015).1

BACKGROUND

In July 2008, Alexis Cantore suffered permanent brain damage while being treated for hydrocephalus at West Boca Medical Center (WBMC) and Miami Children's Hospital (MCH). The Fourth District described the background of this case as follows:

In 2006, two years before the illness that gave rise to this case, when Alexis Cantore was twelve years old, she was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a condition resulting from a build-up of excess cerebral spinal fluid within the cranium. Her condition resulted from a benign tumor which grew and blocked the outflow of the fluid which normally circulates around the brain. In 2006, she underwent a procedure, known as an Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy ("ETV"), to remove the blockage. The procedure, which was performed at MCH, relieved the problem without causing Alexis any permanent injury.
However, scar tissue began to develop; a December 2007 CT scan at WBMC showed fluid starting to accumulate around her brain again. MRIs in March and June 2008 confirmed that a blockage was occurring again. A doctor at MCH scheduled Alexis for an ETV on July 28, 2008.
However, on July 3, 2008, at 2:30 p.m., Alexis began experiencing painful headaches and vomiting. Alexis's parents called MCH; a nurse told them to bring Alexis to the nearest hospital for a CT scan if they could not make it to MCH. Alexis was taken by ambulance to WBMC, arriving at 4:29 p.m. She was triaged and, on a three-tiered scale of categories (emergent, urgent and non-urgent), was listed in the middle category as "urgent." "Urgent" patients are those who are sick and require care, but are able to progress. In contrast, "emergent" patients may deteriorate quickly and need interventions, while "non-urgent" patients may have something like a laceration or a bite, which requires care but is not a medical emergency. The triage nurse on duty, in categorizing Alexis as "urgent," noted that she was awake and alert, moving all extremities, had a normal neurological exam, and a normal pupillary response, which was not indicative of an impending brain herniation.
Dr. Freyre-Cubano ("Dr. Freyre"), a pediatrician who was working in the WBMC emergency room, ordered a CT scan STAT at 4:47 p.m., before examining Alexis. Dr. Freyre first evaluated Alexis and noted that she had a normal pupillary exam. A nurse also noted no deficits to Alexis's eyes. Dr. Freyre performed another eye exam which showed that Alexis's pupils were equal and reactive to light. A radiologist read the new CT scan, compared it with the previous one from December 2007, and confirmed in a report that Alexis's condition was worsening, and that the ventricles were larger than they had been on the previous CT scan. The findings were "consistent with worsening hydrocephalus."
By 5:40 p.m., Dr. Freyre had reviewed the report on the CT scan and called Dr. Sandberg, the on-call pediatric neurosurgeon at MCH, regarding transferring Alexis to MCH. At that time, Dr. Freyre told Dr. Sandberg that Alexis was "stable." This became an important issue at trial and ... on appeal.
Dr. Freyre spoke with MCH's emergency department physicians regarding transferring Alexis via MCH's helicopter transportation service, known as "LifeFlight." About twenty minutes later, the MCH dispatcher for LifeFlight received the request for transport.
A WBMC nurse called the operations administrator at MCH, and apparently learned that the pilots on shift were approaching the maximum twelve hours of flight time and Alexis's transport would be completed by the on-coming pilots. LifeFlight's estimated arrival time was 7:00 p.m.
At 6:22 p.m., Alexis had an episode of vomiting, during which her heart rate briefly dropped to 55. A WBMC nurse then contacted a MCH Pediatric Intensive Care Unit ("PICU") nurse to update them. Dr. Freyre noted that she had called the MCH emergency department physician regarding Alexis's transfer and gave the necessary information.
Alexis was transferred to LifeFlight care at 7:25 p.m. She was examined by a LifeFlight nurse. The neurological assessment at that time was that Alexis was asleep, non-verbal and oriented as to person. When she was awakened, she was able to respond to her mother by nodding her head, and her pupils were equal, round and reactive to light. She had a Glasgow Coma Scale score of 13, with a perfect score being 15. She had a decrease in her speech. The helicopter lifted off at 8:09 p.m.
During the flight, Alexis suffered an acute decompensation. By the time she landed at MCH at 8:25 p.m., she had suffered a brain herniation. Accordingly, instead of taking Alexis to PICU, hospital personnel took her straight to the ER. Alexis arrived in very critical condition. Dr. Sandberg did an emergent ventriculostomy, in which he drilled a hole into her skull to insert a catheter, thereby relieving pressure on the brain. This procedure saved her life. However, Alexis suffered permanent brain damage; she has significant mental impairment and must be fed through a tube. She will never be able to work or live independently.

Id. at 1115-17.

In 2010, Alexis and her parents, Felix and Barbara Cantore, sued WBMC and MCH, alleging that they had not provided proper medical care for Alexis on July 3, 2008. The Cantores presented testimony from several expert witnesses regarding the timing of Alexis' transfer from WBMC to MCH and the care she received from the LifeFlight crew. One of the witnesses, Dr. William Loudon, a pediatric neurosurgeon, testified that, based on his understanding of Alexis' condition before she herniated, if she had come under his care prior to the herniation, he would have performed an emergency ventriculostomy. In Dr. Loudon's opinion, if Alexis had received earlier relief from the build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in her brain, the herniation could have been prevented.

Over the Cantores' objection, counsel for WBMC was permitted to publish to the jury the deposition of Dr. Sandberg, the pediatric neurosurgeon at MCH who operated on Alexis, in which Dr. Sandberg answered hypothetical questions as to how he would have treated Alexis had she arrived at MCH an hour or two earlier. The trial court also permitted Dr. Steven White, WBMC's expert on pediatric emergency medicine, to testify that Dr. Sandberg's statement as to what he would have done had Alexis arrived at MCH earlier was consistent with what other neurosurgeons would have done.

Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of WBMC and MCH. The Fourth District affirmed, concluding that this Court's decision in Saunders v. Dickens , 151 So.3d 434 (Fla. 2014), did not prevent the admission of Dr. Sandberg's deposition testimony. Cantore , 174 So.3d at 1117-21.

ANALYSIS

The Cantores argue that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting Dr. Sandberg's deposition testimony about what he would have done had Alexis arrived at MCH earlier because such testimony is prohibited by this Court's decision in Saunders . We agree and quash the Fourth District's decision.2

A trial court's admission of evidence is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. See Special v. W. Boca Med. Ctr. , 160 So.3d 1251, 1265 (Fla. 2014).

The elements of a medical malpractice claim are: "(1) a duty by the physician, (2) a breach of that duty, and (3) causation." Saunders , 151 So.3d at 441 (citing Gooding v. Univ. Hosp. Bldg., Inc. , 445 So.2d 1015, 1018 (Fla. 1984) ). To establish that a physician breached the duty of care owed to the patient, the plaintiff must prove that "the care provided by the physician was not that of a reasonably prudent physician ." Id. As to the element of causation, "Florida courts follow the more likely than not standard of causation and require proof that the negligence probably caused the plaintiff's injury." Gooding , 445 So.2d at 1018.

In Saunders , this Court addressed a plaintiff's burden of proof in medical malpractice cases. The patient in Saunders went to a neurologist complaining of back and leg pain, unsteadiness, cramps in his hands and feet, numbness in his hands, and tingling in his feet. Saunders , 151 So.3d at 436. The neurologist determined that the issues with the patient's hands were caused by peripheral neuropathy due to diabetes, but the neurologist did not perform a test to confirm the diagnosis. Id. The neurologist recommended that the patient be admitted to the hospital, and he ordered an MRI of the patient's brain and lumbar spine. Id. "[T]he MRI of the lumbar spine demonstrated severe stenosis (narrowing) of the spinal canal." Id. Based on these results, the neurologist referred the patient to a neurosurgeon for a consultation. Id. Unaware of any issues with the patient's upper extremities, the neurosurgeon performed a lumbar decompression procedure on the patient. Id. The patient's condition did not improve, so the neurosurgeon ordered additional MRIs, including a cervical MRI, which showed compression in both the lower...

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