Daniels v. Durham County Hosp. Corp., COA04-338.

Citation615 S.E.2d 60
Decision Date19 July 2005
Docket NumberNo. COA04-338.,COA04-338.
PartiesKeith DANIELS, Administrator of the Estate of Lorren Alaine Daniels, Tonya Koonce-Daniels, and Keith Daniels, Individually, Plaintiffs, v. DURHAM COUNTY HOSPITAL CORPORATION d/b/a Durham Regional Hospital; Doe Corporations One Through Five; and Doe Individuals One Through Five, Defendants.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Burford & Lewis, PLLC, by Robert J. Burford and James W. Vaughan, Durham, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan, L.L.P., by Timothy P. Lehan, Christopher G. Smith, and Kelly L. Podger, Raleigh, for defendant-appellee.

GEER, Judge.

Plaintiffs Keith Daniels and his wife Tonya Koonce-Daniels brought suit against defendant Durham County Hospital Corporation ("the Hospital") for the death of their baby, Lorren Alaine Daniels, due to injuries they contend were sustained during her delivery. Plaintiffs have appealed from the trial court's order granting the Hospital summary judgment, arguing that the Hospital is liable based on (1) its nurses' failure to oppose the delivering doctor's decision to perform a mid-forceps delivery, (2) the nurses' failure to obtain plaintiffs' informed consent, and (3) the Hospital's failure to adopt a policy governing mid-forceps deliveries. We affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant.


On 1 September 1995, Ms. Koonce-Daniels was admitted to the Hospital by her private physician, Dr. James Dingfelder, for induction of labor due to her elevated blood pressure. At approximately 7:30 a.m. on 2 September 1995, Nurse Clara Butler Sharpe, an employee of the Hospital, came on duty as Ms. Koonce-Daniels' primary labor and delivery nurse. Nurse Sharpe had worked with Dr. Dingfelder for 18 to 19 years.

At 10:30 a.m., Ms. Koonce-Daniels received an epidural to address her labor pains. Her labor continued through the afternoon without any signs of fetal distress or maternal compromise. At 3:55 p.m., Ms. Koonce-Daniels was in the second stage of labor, the point at which she would normally push the baby down further into the birth canal to complete a normal vaginal delivery. Nurse Sharpe assessed Ms. Koonce-Daniels at this time and noted that her vital signs were "stable" and that the baby's heart rate was "normal." Dr. Dingfelder, however, performed a vaginal examination of Ms. Koonce-Daniels and determined that the baby was in an "occiput posterior" position, looking up at her mother's stomach, rather than in the normal position, looking down towards her mother's back.

Dr. Dingfelder made the decision to perform a forceps delivery rather than to allow Ms. Koonce-Daniels to begin pushing and attempt a normal vaginal delivery. At this point, the baby was at a "plus-two" station in the birth canal. In other words, she had not yet proceeded far enough along in the birth canal for her head to be visible during contractions. A forceps delivery performed upon such a baby is known as a "mid-forceps" delivery. At 4:04 p.m., Dr. Dingfelder used forceps to rotate the baby 180 degrees to the proper anterior position and then to deliver the baby. He was assisted in the delivery by Nurse Sharpe and Nurse Kay Parker (also an employee of the Hospital).

When Lorren was delivered at 4:18 p.m., she was unresponsive, blue in color, and not breathing. Subsequent examination revealed that she had been born with a cervical spine injury. She was paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on her own. Lorren died from this spinal injury on 11 April 1996.

In 1997, plaintiffs filed suit against Dr. Dingfelder and the Hospital and its agents, alleging joint and several liability for negligence and medical malpractice arising out of Lorren's spinal injury and death. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims against the Hospital in 1998 and later entered into a settlement agreement with Dr. Dingfelder. On 19 February 1999, plaintiffs re-filed their claims against the Hospital, asserting causes of action for negligence and negligent infliction of severe emotional distress.

After filing an answer and after completion of discovery, the Hospital moved for summary judgment. In response, plaintiffs contended that the Hospital was liable based on respondeat superior (1) for its nurses' failure to oppose the doctor's decision to perform a mid-forceps delivery by either refusing to assist in the procedure or by invoking the hospital chain of command policy and (2) for its nurses' failure to obtain informed consent from plaintiffs. Plaintiffs further contended that the Hospital was directly negligent in failing to adopt a policy governing the performance of mid-forceps deliveries. Following a hearing, Judge Orlando Hudson entered summary judgment in favor of the Hospital. Plaintiffs filed a timely appeal of that order.

Standard of Review

"It is well established that the standard of review of the grant of a motion for summary judgment requires a two-part analysis of whether, (1) the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Von Viczay v. Thoms, 140 N.C.App. 737, 738, 538 S.E.2d 629, 630 (2000) (internal quotation marks omitted), aff'd per curiam, 353 N.C. 445, 545 S.E.2d 210 (2001). The moving party has the burden of establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Garner v. Rentenbach Constructors, Inc., 350 N.C. 567, 572, 515 S.E.2d 438, 441 (1999). Both before the trial court and on appeal, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and all inferences from that evidence must be drawn against the moving party and in favor of the non-moving party. Id. We review the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Shroyer v. County of Mecklenburg, 154 N.C.App. 163, 167, 571 S.E.2d 849, 851 (2002).

The Nurses' Failure to Oppose the Doctor's Decision

With respect to plaintiffs' claim regarding the nurses' failure to oppose the doctor's decision to deliver plaintiffs' baby by way of a mid-forceps delivery, defendants initially contend that the record contains insufficient evidence of proximate cause. We need not, however, address that issue because we agree with defendant's alternative contention that plaintiffs' evidence is not sufficient to meet the standard set forth in Byrd v. Marion Gen. Hosp., 202 N.C. 337, 162 S.E. 738 (1932).

Under Byrd, a nurse may not be held liable for obeying a doctor's order unless "such order was so obviously negligent as to lead any reasonable person to anticipate that substantial injury would result to the patient from the execution of such order or performance of such direction." Id. at 341, 162 S.E. at 740. The Court stressed that "[t]he law contemplates that the physician is solely responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of his patient. Nurses are not supposed to be experts in the technique of diagnosis or the mechanics of treatment." Id. at 341-42, 162 S.E. at 740 (emphasis added).

Although these principles were set out more than 70 years ago, they remain the controlling law in North Carolina. Blanton v. Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp., Inc., 319 N.C. 372, 376, 354 S.E.2d 455, 458 (1987). Plaintiffs refer repeatedly to the responsibilities of the "delivery team" and argue for a collaborative process with joint responsibility. While medical practices, standards, and expectations have certainly changed since 1932 and even since 1987, this Court is not free to alter the standard set forth in Byrd and Blanton.

In applying Byrd, this Court has stated: "While a nurse may disobey the instructions of a physician where those instructions are obviously wrong and will result in harm to the patient, the duty to disobey does not extend to situations where there is a difference of medical opinion." Paris v. Michael Kreitz, Jr., P.A., 75 N.C.App. 365, 380, 331 S.E.2d 234, 245 (internal citations omitted), disc. review denied, 315 N.C. 185, 337 S.E.2d 858 (1985). In Paris, this Court noted that while the negligence of the doctor was a question of fact, "it is clear that the negligence was not so obvious as to require [the nurse] to disobey an instruction or refuse to administer a treatment [because] ... [a]ny disagreement or contrary recommendation she may have had as to the treatment prescribed would have necessarily been premised on a separate diagnosis, which she was not qualified to render." Id. at 381, 331 S.E.2d at 245.

Here, although plaintiffs' expert witness affidavits list ten functions that nurses perform in the course of a mid-forceps delivery, plaintiffs do not contend that the defendant nurses were negligent in performing those functions. Instead, plaintiffs contend that the nurses should have challenged the doctor's decision and, if unsuccessful in changing that decision, should have "refused to participate as a part of Tonya Daniels's labor and delivery team in the non-indicated and unconsented-to mid-forceps rotation and delivery." (Emphasis omitted.)

Based on our review of plaintiffs' evidence, even if there is an issue of fact regarding the negligence of Dr. Dingfelder, that evidence does not establish that the negligence was so obvious as to require the nurses to refuse to obey the doctor. In arguing that the nurses should have challenged the doctor's order, plaintiffs discuss factual issues regarding "clinical indications," the level of the baby in the birth canal, the degree of maternal and fetal distress, and the viability and appropriateness of proceeding to stage two labor—all factors underlying a medical diagnosis and a decision regarding treatment. They...

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    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of North Carolina
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