Christofferson v. City of Great Falls

Decision Date25 July 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-570.,01-570.
Citation74 P.3d 1021,2003 MT 189
PartiesJanice CHRISTOFFERSON, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Ronald O. Christofferson, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. CITY OF GREAT FALLS, a political subdivision of the State of Montana, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Norman L. Newhall, Linnell, Newhall, Martin & Schulke, Great Falls, Montana, for Appellant.

Robert F. James, John D. Alexander, Cathy Lewis, Ugrin, Alexander, Zadick & Higgins, Great Falls, Montana, for Respondent.

John J. Richardson, Beck, Richardson & Amsden, Bozeman, Montana, for Amicus Curia (MTLA).

Justice PATRICIA O. COTTER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Janice Christofferson (Janice) brought this action against the City of Great Falls (City or GF) in the Montana Eighth Judicial District Court to recover damages for personal injury and the wrongful death of her husband, Ron Christofferson (Ron). The jury returned a verdict for the City and the District Court entered judgment on the verdict. Janice appeals from various evidentiary rulings by the District Court and from the judgment. We affirm.

ISSUES

¶ 2 Janice presents the following issues on appeal:

¶ 3 1. Did the District Court err in permitting the City's expert to render an opinion based on medical articles that were not applicable to the facts of the case?

2. Did the District Court err in permitting the City's expert to testify from a medical article the existence of which he had previously denied and from articles that had not been disclosed?

3. Did the District Court err in permitting paramedic, Kendall Neff, to estimate the time lapse from arrival of the ambulance to intubation based on "habit"?

4. Did the District Court err in refusing to instruct the jury on concurring, independent causes, which was a central theory of Janice's case?

5. Did the District Court err in refusing to instruct the jury on the burden of proof in the case of a single indivisible injury, which was a central theory of Janice's case? 6. Did the District Court err in excluding evidence of a cover-up which related to the dispatcher's credibility?

7. Did the District Court err in excluding testimony of the paramedics regarding the resuscibility of Ron Christofferson at the scene?

8. Did the District Court err in excluding the testimony of Janice's economist on the value of loss of enjoyment of life?

¶ 4 By way of its cross-appeal, the City questions whether the District Court erred in deciding that hedonic damages are a proper element of damages in a survival action where the decedent survived, but did not consciously experience a loss of enjoyment of life.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 5 Shortly after midnight on April 3, 1998, Ron Christofferson, who suffered from asthma, experienced a respiratory arrest and collapsed, unable to breathe. His wife, Janice, called 9-1-1 and reported that her husband was "not breathing." She told the dispatcher that her address was 1909 2nd Street South. Rorrie Toren and Pam Bramlett, 9-1-1 dispatchers for the City of Great Falls, took the call and dispatched an ambulance. Bramlett erroneously dispatched the ambulance to 1909 2nd Avenue South. Upon arriving at the 2nd Avenue address, the paramedics notified the dispatchers of the mistake. The dispatchers provided the correct address and immediately notified the police of the emergency at the Christofferson's home. A police officer on patrol near the home arrived seven minutes after the original dispatch. Upon arrival, the police officer and Janice performed CPR until the ambulance arrived.

¶ 6 The paramedics and the ambulance arrived approximately 12.5 minutes after the original dispatch. At the time the paramedics arrived, they were able to discern a weak pulse and observed that Ron was experiencing a slow heart beat, known as a bradycardia heart rhythm. They also recognized that Ron had vomited and aspirated vomitus into his lungs. Paramedic Pat Songer cleared Ron's mouth and airway and intubated him. Paramedic Kendall Neff administered the necessary intravenous drugs and handled the heart monitor. Once Ron was stabilized, the paramedics transported him to the hospital. Ron never recovered consciousness and died approximately two and one-half days later.

¶ 7 Prior to trial, the City admitted its negligence but denied that its negligence caused Ron's death. A jury trial was held on June 4, 2001. On June 11, 2001, the jury issued a special verdict in which it held that the City's negligence in dispatching the ambulance to the wrong address was not a substantial factor in causing Ron's death. The court subsequently entered judgment in favor of the City. Janice appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 8 We review a court's rulings on the admissibility of evidence to determine whether the court abused its discretion. State v. Bingman, 2002 MT 350, ¶ 19, 313 Mont. 376, ¶ 19, 61 P.3d 153, ¶ 19 (citation omitted). Absent a showing of such abuse we will not overturn a district court's decision. Bingman, ¶ 19. Moreover, "the trial court is vested with great latitude in ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony." Baldauf v. Arrow Tank and Engineering, 1999 MT 81, ¶ 22, 294 Mont. 107, ¶ 22, 979 P.2d 166, ¶ 22 (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

¶ 9 A district court has discretion regarding the instructions it gives or refuses to give to a jury and we will not reverse a district court on the basis of its instructions absent an abuse of discretion. Kiely Const. L.L.C. v. City of Red Lodge, 2002 MT 241, ¶ 62, 312 Mont. 52, ¶ 62, 57 P.3d 836, ¶ 62 (citation omitted). In reviewing whether a particular jury instruction was properly given or refused, we consider the instruction in its entirety, as well as in connection with the other instructions given and with the evidence introduced at trial. Kiely, 62. The party assigning error to a district court's instruction must show prejudice in order to prevail, and prejudice will not be found if the jury instructions in their entirety state the applicable law of the case. Kiely, ¶ 62. See also,Barnes v. City of Thompson Falls, 1999 MT 77, ¶ 8, 294 Mont. 76, ¶ 8, 979 P.2d 1275, ¶ 8 (A trial court is imbued with broad discretion to determine whether or not it will give a proposed instruction to the jury....).

DISCUSSION

¶ 10 The first two issues we address are whether the District Court erred in permitting the City's expert to 1) render an opinion based on medical articles that were not applicable to the facts of the case, and 2) testify from a medical article the existence of which he had previously denied and from articles that had not been disclosed.

¶ 11 We begin our analysis of evidentiary rulings pertaining to expert witness testimony with the recognition that the determination of the qualification of an expert witness is a matter largely within the discretion of the trial judge and such a determination will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion. In re Custody of Arneson-Nelson, 2001 MT 242, 307 Mont. 60, 36 P.3d 874. Additionally, we note that expert opinion testimony is subject to several caveats. Under Rule 702, M.R.Evid., opinion evidence from a qualified expert is admissible if specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. Such expert testimony requires that a proper foundation be established. Expert testimony must also satisfy the relevancy rules set forth in Article IV of the Montana Rules of Evidence. Moreover, full disclosure during discovery under Rule 26, M.R.Civ.P., is designed "to eliminate surprise and to promote effective cross-examination of expert witnesses." Hawkins v. Harney, 2003 MT 58, ¶ 21, 314 Mont. 384, ¶ 21, 66 P.3d 305, ¶ 21 (citation omitted).

¶ 12 In the case before us, both Janice and GF called medical expert witnesses. The parties presented the necessary foundation to qualify these medical professionals as experts in their field and the court accepted both Drs. Knapp and Watson as experts. Janice maintains that Dr. Knapp, GF's expert witness, based his opinion of Ron's survivability on medical articles that were irrelevant and/or undisclosed prior to trial. She claims that the disclosed articles relied upon by Knapp were written to address incidents of cardiac, rather than respiratory, arrest. As a result of the inapplicability of the articles' conclusions, she contends, Knapp gave irrelevant but prejudicial testimony.

¶ 13 Our review of the voluminous transcript reveals that Janice's expert, Dr. Watson, provided testimony that directly refuted Knapp's testimony as to the relevancy and applicability of these articles to Ron's condition. Moreover, Janice aggressively cross-examined Knapp.

¶ 14 For a court to abuse its discretion, it must act arbitrarily, without employment of conscientious judgment, or exceed the bounds of reason resulting in substantial injustice. Perdue v. Gagnon Farms, Inc., 2003 MT 47, ¶ 8, 314 Mont. 303, ¶ 8, 65 P.3d 570, ¶ 8. In the case before us, both parties' expert witnesses presented extensive testimony and both parties were allowed to fully cross-examine the other party's expert. Additionally, the District Court instructed the jury that they were not bound by either expert's opinion and that they were to determine the weight to be given to each expert's testimony based upon the expert's qualifications and credibility. Under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that the District Court abused its discretion.

¶ 15 Janice further asserts that Knapp gave testimony based on articles that had not been disclosed prior to trial and that, as a result of this "surprise" testimony, she was unprepared to effectively cross-examine Knapp and was therefore further prejudiced. The trial transcript reveals, however, that Janice did cross-examine Knapp on one of the undisclosed articles, during which Knapp admitted he had not...

To continue reading

Request your trial
31 cases
  • Kostelecky v. Peas in a Pod LLC
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • October 11, 2022
    ...between subject injury and preexisting injury or independent cause); Christofferson v. City of Great Falls, 2003 MT 189, ¶¶ 35-49, 316 Mont. 469, 74 P.3d 1021 (expert medical required to assess viability of treatment options and prognosis); Busta, 276 Mont. at 354-57, 916 P.2d at 129-31 (la......
  • Sunburst School Dist. No. 2 v. Texaco, Inc.
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • August 6, 2007
    ...456, ¶ 16; Wiman v. Dept. of Labor and Industry, 2004 MT 208, ¶¶ 32-33, 322 Mont. 332, ¶¶ 32-33, 96 P.3d 710, ¶¶ 32-33; Christofferson v. City of Great Falls, 2003 MT 189, ¶ 34, 316 Mont. 469, ¶ 34, 74 P.3d 1021, ¶ 34. These cases illustrate that relevancy generally is a fact- and record-sp......
  • Brookins v. Mote
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • January 15, 2013
    ...26, M.R.Civ.P., is designed to ‘eliminate surprise and to promote effective cross-examination of expert witnesses.’ ” Christofferson v. City of Great Falls, 2003 MT 189, ¶ 11, 316 Mont. 469, 74 P.3d 1021 (quoting Hawkins v. Harney, 2003 MT 58, ¶ 21, 314 Mont. 384, 66 P.3d 305). The plaintif......
  • Hamlin Constr. & Dev. Co. v. Mont. Dep't of Transp.
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • October 4, 2022
    ...Mont. at 460, 802 P.2d at 1250 (citing Kitchen Krafters v. Eastside Bank , 242 Mont. 155, 789 P.2d 567 (1990) ). See Christofferson v. City of Great Falls , 2003 MT 189, ¶ 60, 316 Mont. 469, 74 P.3d 1021, (Nelson, J., dissenting) (explaining substantial factor test (citing W. Page Keeton et......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT