Henderson v. Vanderbilt Univ.

Decision Date31 May 2017
Docket NumberNo. M2016–01876–COA–R9–CV,M2016–01876–COA–R9–CV
Citation534 S.W.3d 426
CourtTennessee Court of Appeals
Parties Rodney and Tammy HENDERSON, et al. v. The VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

Gary K. Smith v. Karen M. Campbell, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Rodney Henderson, and Tammy Henderson.

Thomas A. Wiseman and Kimberly G. Silvus, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, The Vanderbilt University.

Unpublished Text Follows End of Unpublished Text

J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Kenny Armstrong, J., joined, Brandon O. Gibson J., dissenting.

J. Steven Stafford, P.J.

The trial court granted partial summary judgment to the defendant hospital on the ground that the plaintiffs could not establish that they witnessed or perceived an injury-producing event for purposes of their negligent infliction of emotional distress claims. We hold that the alleged failure of the defendant hospital to provide care to the plaintiffs' daughter, despite repeated assurances from the hospital that it would occur, constitutes an injury-producing event that was witnessed by plaintiffs. Accordingly, the trial court erred in dismissing plaintiffs' negligent infliction of emotional distress claims on this basis.


Plaintiffs/Appellants Rodney and Tammy Henderson, individually and on behalf of their deceased minor daughter ("Appellants"), filed a complaint against Defendant/Appellee The Vanderbilt University ("Vanderbilt") on July 7, 2014. Therein, Appellants alleged that their ten-year old daughter, Halle, was admitted to the Vanderbilt Pediatric Intensive Care Unit ("PICU") for septic shock related to the flu on March 23, 2013. Although the child was given fluids and other medicines, "[n]o central line was placed, no echocardiogram was performed; no one called for a cardiology consult." In the evening of March 24, the child's care was transferred from the attending physician to a resident. The complaint alleged that after that time, the attending physician did not see the child. In the morning of March 25, Appellants alleged that they witnessed their daughter go into cardiac arrest. After two hours of CPR, the child was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.1 Appellants alleged that after the arrest, the child's condition continued to deteriorate. During a procedure on April 4, 2013, the child suffered a stroke and was ultimately diagnosed with brain death. Accordingly, Appellants stated that "a decision was made to withdraw care." As a result, the child passed away on April 5, 2013.

The complaint alleged various forms of negligence against Vanderbilt, all generally relating to Vanderbilt's failure "to provide reasonable medical care and treatment and services" to the child. In addition to a wrongful death claim, Appellants also included a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress ("NIED"). Only Appellants' NIED claim is at issue in this appeal.

Vanderbilt filed an answer on September 12, 2014. Relevant to this appeal, Vanderbilt denied that it, its employees, or its agents committed any negligence and averred that Appellants failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted with regard to their NIED claim. Mr. Henderson's deposition was taken on August 28, 2015. Therein, Mr. Henderson detailed the medical treatment provided to his daughter leading up to her cardiac arrest on the morning of March 24, 2013, and her eventual death on April 5, 2013. According to Mr. Henderson, he and his wife repeatedly asked that the child receive additional care during the approximately twelve hours between her admittance to Vanderbilt and her arrest. Specifically, Mr. Henderson testified that he spoke with Vanderbilt staff about the child receiving a cardiology consult at 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., and 4:15 a.m. At around 5:00 a.m., Mr. Henderson was in the hallway speaking with a doctor again about the promised cardiology consult, while Mrs. Henderson was in the child's room. At this time, the child went into cardiac arrest. Mr. Henderson testified that although he was in the hallway, he heard his wife screaming and the child's machines sounding. Mr. Henderson further testified that he saw the child "arch [ ] up" and urinate during the cardiac arrest. Mr. Henderson and his wife stayed in the room for a few minutes while doctors and nurses rushed in but were soon ushered into the hallway. Mr. Henderson testified that they later learned that Vanderbilt staff performed CPR on the child for over an hour. Mr. Henderson described the child's cardiac arrest as "a shock."

Mr. Henderson testified that the trauma from the ordeal and the child's death has been devastating for his family. Mr. Henderson takes medication for depression and anxiety but was eventually able to return to work after several months. The same was not true for Mrs. Henderson. According to Mr. Henderson, Mrs. Henderson takes up to four Xanax per day to cope with her depression and anxiety, which prevents her from taking care of Appellants' other child. In addition, Mr. Henderson testified that Mrs. Henderson twice attempted to end her life, resulting in in-patient psychiatric treatment. Mr. Henderson explained that Mrs. Henderson now reads her Bible and goes to church but otherwise does not participate in the daily activities of life.

On July 6, 2016, Vanderbilt filed a motion for partial summary judgment, arguing that Appellants' NIED claim should be dismissed because Appellants had not witnessed an injury-producing event necessary to sustain their NIED claim. Specifically, Vanderbilt asserted that the only "event" that formed the basis of the NIED claim was "complications," which is insufficient to serve as the factual predicate for an NIED claim. Vanderbilt also asserted that Appellants did not witness the actual event that caused the child's death—her stroke—nor did Appellants witness the efforts to resuscitate the child after her cardiac arrest. Attached to Vanderbilt's motion was a statement of undisputed material facts. Therein, Vanderbilt admitted that Appellants were with the child "nearly the entire time that she was in the PICU," and that Appellants "were present when their daughter arrested, but they were ushered out of their daughter's room when the physicians and nurses responded to that event."

Appellants responded in opposition, arguing that Vanderbilt incorrectly characterized the child's stroke as the sole cause of her death. Rather, Appellants alleged that Vanderbilt's failure to appropriately treat the child's shock caused a chain reaction that ultimately led to the child's stroke and death. According to Appellants, had the child's shock been appropriately managed, the child would not have gone into cardiac arrest, would not have had a stroke, and would not have died. As such, Appellants asserted that they had witnessed the injury-producing event, which Appellants defined as "multiple care failures," and the deterioration and suffering of the child, while Mr. Henderson repeatedly requested a cardiology consult.

In support, Appellants submitted the affidavit of an expert who opined that the child's death was caused by Vanderbilt's failure to appropriately manage the child's shock. According to the expert, had Vanderbilt appropriately managed the shock, "it is more probable than not that the child would not have reached the point of suffering a cardiac arrest or any of the other complications that resulted in her death." Appellants also submitted the affidavits of three experts to support their claims of severe emotional injuries. A psychiatrist who had performed consultations on Appellants stated that Ms. Henderson specifically cited "March 24, 2013" as her "chief complaint" and the cause of her severe depression and anxiety. Likewise, a licensed psychiatric nurse practitioner who was providing treatment for Appellants detailed their severe emotional injuries and opined that these injuries resulted from the events of "what transpired at Vanderbilt" leading to the child's cardiac arrest and eventual death.

Although Appellants generally agreed with Vanderbilt's statement of undisputed material facts for purposes of summary judgment, Appellants submitted their own statement of facts, which they argued were undisputed. This statement detailed the suffering of the child leading up to her death, Mr. Henderson's multiple requests for a cardiology consult, Appellants' medical expert's opinion that the child's death was a result of untreated shock, and Appellants' experts' opinions regarding the resulting severe emotional harm to Appellants. Specifically, Appellants alleged that in the hours prior to her cardiac arrest, the child was complaining that her chest was hurting and that she was having difficulty breathing. At one point, the child informed Mrs. Henderson that she was "scared." According to Appellants, the child was also "panting like an animal" and out of breath. Appellants further alleged that they witnessed the child's distress, understood that her heart rate was abnormal, and repeatedly questioned Vanderbilt's staff about her not receiving any treatment or testing. Appellants also asserted that Vanderbilt staff repeatedly assured Mr. Henderson that a cardiology consultation had been ordered. Nevertheless, no cardiology consultation occurred prior to the child's cardiac arrest. As a result, Mr. Henderson alleged that he was "quite upset" even before the child went into cardiac arrest.

With regard to Appellants' emotional injuries, Appellants' statement of undisputed material facts contained the opinions of three qualified experts, a licensed social worker, a psychiatrist, and a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. The experts were in agreement that Appellants both suffered severe or serious emotional injuries. As to the cause of these injuries, the experts generally pointed to "the...

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