Johnson v. Hillcrest Health Center, Inc.

Decision Date18 February 2003
Docket NumberNo. 97,076.,97,076.
Citation2003 OK 16,70 P.3d 811
PartiesGeraldine JOHNSON, Administratrix of the Estate of Henry Johnson, Deceased, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. HILLCREST HEALTH CENTER, INC., an Oklahoma corporation, Defendant/Appellee.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Howard K. Berry, III, Oklahoma City, OK, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

Michael J. Heron, Daniel L. Cox, Oklahoma City, OK, for Defendant/Appellee.

KAUGER, J.

¶ 1 The issues presented on certiorari are: 1) whether sufficient evidence exists to raise material issues of fact concerning whether the hospital breached the applicable standard of care and whether its breach may have caused or contributed to the death of the patient; and 2) whether the doctor's decision to discharge the patient from the hospital a second time was an intervening cause of the patient's injuries as a matter of law.1 We hold that summary judgment is precluded because: 1) sufficient evidence exists to raise material issues of fact concerning whether the hospital breached the applicable standard of care and the degree to which the breach may have caused or contributed to the patient's death; and 2) the summary judgment materials do not support a determination, as a matter of law, that the doctor's second discharge of the patient was an intervening cause of the patient's death.

FACTS

¶ 2 This cause concerns a negligence suit brought by the appellant, Geraldine Johnson (wife), the administratrix of her husband, Henry Johnson's (husband/patient/Johnson) estate, against the appellee, Hillcrest Heath Center (Hillcrest/hospital) of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. On December 11, 1997, Johnson sought treatment for chest pains at the Hillcrest emergency room at about 10:30 a.m. The emergency room physician, concerned that Johnson's chest pains could be a heart attack, admitted Johnson to the hospital at about 1:45 p.m. for further testing under the care of Dr. Jozef Dzurilla (Dzurilla/doctor).

¶ 3 In 1997, laboratory blood tests known as CPK and CKMB isoenzyme tests (lab tests) were used to rule out a possible heart attack.2 After initial testing, if the total CPK level appeared elevated the laboratory would perform a CKMB test to identify myocardial heart isoenzymes to aid in determining if someone was experiencing a myocardial infarction commonly known as a heart attack. At 5:42 a.m. on December 12, 1997, a CPK isoenzyme test was performed on Johnson's blood. Because the test showed an elevated CPK level, the blood sample was submitted for a CKMB isoenzyme test.

¶ 4 According to the laboratory and the hospital, the raw data from the lab tests which indicated an abnormal range were posted to the hospital computer system by 11:26 a.m. on December 12, 1997. The test results, along with the pathologist's report (lab report) interpreting the results and suggesting that the patient had an "[e]arly acute myocardial injury," would ordinarily be placed in the patient's chart after the test results were posted to the computer system. However, Johnson's test results were apparently placed in the wrong chart on December 12, 1997. The raw data from the lab tests was available on computer terminals located throughout the hospital, including Johnson's floor, but the pathologist's report was not on the computer. Dr. Dzurilla, without checking the computer, concluded that Johnson was not suffering from a heart attack and Johnson was released at 11:40 a.m. on December 12, 1997.

¶ 5 The next day, Johnson was readmitted to the hospital again under the care of Dr. Dzurilla still complaining of chest pains. The doctor treated Johnson and discharged him on December 15, 1997. Dr. Dzurilla insists that the lab tests and the lab report were not in Johnson's chart during either of his stays at Hillcrest and that, had he seen the information, he would have confirmed the tests results and consulted with a cardiologist rather than discharge Johnson.

¶ 6 On December 19, 1997, Johnson was admitted to Southwest Medical Center where he was diagnosed and treated for a heart attack. Johnson later died at Southwest on December 21, 1997. On December 2, 1998, Johnson's wife filed a negligence action against the doctor. Subsequently, she amended her petition to include claims against the pathologist and the hospital. On June 22, 2000, the wife dismissed her claim against the pathologist. After settling with the doctor, she dismissed her claim against him on August 20, 2001.

¶ 7 On September 4, 2001, the hospital filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the wife could not show that it breached the applicable standard of care or that it caused or contributed to Johnson's death. On November 8, 2001, the trial court, without hearing arguments, entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of the hospital. Johnson appealed, and on July 25, 2002, the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed. We granted certiorari on October 21, 2002.

I.

¶ 8 SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE EXISTS TO RAISE MATERIAL ISSUES OF FACT CONCERNING WHETHER THE HOSPITAL BREACHED THE APPLICABLE STANDARD OF CARE AND THE DEGREE TO WHICH THE BREACH MAY HAVE CAUSED OR CONTRIBUTED TO THE PATIENT'S DEATH.

¶ 9 The wife's negligence claim against the hospital primarily concerns its alleged failure to post the lab tests and the lab report to her husband's chart and/or call them to the doctor's attention before Johnson was discharged from Hillcrest on December 12, 1997, and December 15, 1997. She asserts that: 1) the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the hospital because her evidence establishes an actionable negligence claim against the hospital; and 2) material fact questions exist which preclude summary judgment.

¶ 10 The hospital argues that the wife's expert testimony evidence fails to establish an actionable negligence claim because she cannot show: 1) a breach of the applicable standard of care in its handling of the lab test or lab report; and 2) a causal link between the alleged deficiencies in its handling of the report and the death of the patient. In support of its argument, the hospital points to the deposition of the wife's expert witness in which the expert testified that: 1) the hospital's posting of its lab tests to the computer was an acceptable method of conveying the results to the doctor;3 and 2) the lab report interpreting the lab tests was not necessary to diagnosis the heart attack in this case.4

¶ 11 The wife counters that her expert's testimony shows that the hospital breached the duty of care that it owed to Johnson and that its breach caused and/or contributed to his injures. In support of her argument she points to her expert's deposition,5 an affidavit prepared by her expert witness,6 and to the deposition of Dr. Dzurilla.7 Nevertheless, she also insists that expert testimony is not necessary under the facts presented.

¶ 12 To support an actionable claim for negligence, a plaintiff must establish the concurrent existence of: a duty on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from injury; a failure of the defendant to perform that duty; and an injury to the plaintiff resulting from the failure of the defendant.8 Negligence on the part of a hospital in the care and treatment of a patient consists of doing something it should not have done, or omitting an action it should have taken.9

¶ 13 Hospitals have an implied obligation or duty to exercise ordinary care in the delivery of professional services to their patients.10 A hospital's duty requires such care and protection to a patient as the patient's condition requires.11 Whether such requirements have been met presents an issue of fact to be determined by the jury.12 The applicable standard of care and deviations therefrom causing an injury are ordinarily established by expert testimony, unless the common knowledge of lay persons would enable a jury to conclude the applicable standard of care and whether its breach caused the injury.13

¶ 14 Title 63 O.S.2001 § 1-705,14 Oklahoma Administrative Code, 310: 667-19-2 (2001),15 and Oklahoma Administrative Code, 317:30-5-3 (1995), collectively, also impose upon hospitals a duty to document orders, treatment, tests, and services rendered in a patient's chart.16 Although neither party cites to these authorities, we are charged with the duty to take judicial notice of statutes and rules promulgated pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act.17 Because rules and regulations enacted by administrative agencies and boards pursuant to the powers delegated to them have the force and effect of law,18 they are material and relevant to the issue of the applicable standard of care and its alleged breach.

¶ 15 The obvious purpose of the charting requirement is to provide a record to assist the physician in properly treating the patient. Physicians depend on the reliability and trustworthiness of the chart. As far as a hospital is concerned, there is no more important record than the chart for indicating the diagnosis, the condition, and the treatment required for patients.19 In our view, no degree of knowledge or skill is required other than that possessed by the average person to conclude that the applicable standard of care required the hospital to include completed lab tests and lab reports in the patient's chart to aid the doctor in diagnosing and treating the patient—regardless of whether lab tests are made available on the computer.20

¶ 16 A motion for summary judgment should be sustained only when the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, admissions or other evidentiary materials establish that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.21 All conclusions drawn from the evidentiary materials submitted to the trial court are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.22 Even when basic facts are undisputed, motions for summary judgment should be denied, if under the evidence, reasonable persons...

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