Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado v. Sharp, 85SC339

Citation741 P.2d 714
Case DateJuly 27, 1987
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

Cooper & Kelley, P.C., Frank R. Kennedy, Gretchen C. Rau, Denver, for petitioner Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado.

Johnson, Mahoney & Scott, P.C., Collie E. Norman, Denver, for petitioners Colorado Permanente Medical Group and Paul D. Spiedel.

McDermott, Hansen, Anderson & Reilly, William J. Hansen, Denver, John R. Olsen, P.C., Boulder, for respondents.

ERICKSON, Justice.

We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals opinion in Sharp v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, 710 P.2d 1153 (Colo.App.1985), which reversed an order of summary judgment entered in favor of the defendants on the plaintiffs' medical malpractice claim. The trial court granted summary judgment because it concluded that the plaintiffs could not prove beyond mere speculation that the defendants' negligence caused the plaintiffs' injuries. The court of appeals, in reviewing the order of summary judgment, ruled that a triable issue of fact was created by the affidavit of the plaintiffs' medical expert, which indicated that the defendants' alleged negligence substantially increased the plaintiffs' risk of injury. We affirm the court of appeals.


On April 19, 1982, Gail Sharp, a thirty-five-year-old woman suffering from obesity and hypercholesterolemia, 1 contacted Dr. Paul Speidel, an internist employed by Colorado Permanente Medical Group (Permanente), at a clinic operated by Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado (Kaiser). Dr. Speidel had been treating Sharp over a period of four years for a variety of medical problems, and was aware that she suffered from hypercholesterolemia and had a significant family history of coronary artery disease. Sharp told Dr. Speidel that she was suffering from chest pains that had been increasing in intensity and frequency for two or three weeks prior to the call. Since he was concerned that her chest pains were symptoms of a serious heart problem, Dr. Speidel advised Sharp to come to the Kaiser clinic.

At the clinic, Dr. Speidel examined Sharp, and concluded that Sharp's symptoms might be indicative of a heart disorder. Dr. Speidel told her that she should be examined by a cardiologist, and prescribed sublingual nitroglycerin, to be taken when and if Sharp had any future pains, and Nadolol, a "beta blocker" 2 used for the treatment of angina. 3 He directed her to undergo further tests, including an electrocardiogram, a chest x-ray, and blood tests, which she had performed at the clinic that afternoon. Dr. Speidel also told her to call him if she had any problems or if her condition worsened.

On April 20 or 21, Sharp called the cardiologist recommended by Dr. Speidel, but was unable to get an appointment until April 29. Her condition worsened, and she allegedly attempted without success to contact Dr. Speidel three or four times between April 21 and April 23. On April 24, Sharp was admitted to the Lutheran Medical Center, and suffered an anterior myocardial infarction 4 soon thereafter.

Sharp recovered, and on November 30, 1982, she and her husband brought suit against Dr. Speidel, Kaiser, and Permanente. Sharp alleged that Dr. Speidel negligently (1) misdiagnosed her condition as stable angina, when in fact she was suffering from unstable angina, (2) failed to hospitalize her on April 19, and (3) failed to order immediate bed rest, oxygen, further diagnostic studies, long- and short-acting nitrates, and a cardiological consultation. The plaintiffs asserted that Kaiser and Permanente were vicariously liable for Dr. Speidel's acts and the acts of one another, and that both had exercised negligent hiring and training practices, which proximately caused Sharp's injuries. The complaint requested damages for Sharp's actual pecuniary loss, pain and suffering, disability, and shortened life expectancy, and for her husband's emotional distress and loss of consortium.

All of the defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants' alleged negligence was the cause of Sharp's heart attack, and that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In opposing the defendants' motions, the plaintiffs submitted an affidavit of their expert witness, Dr. Phillip Oliva, in accordance with C.R.C.P. 56(e). The affidavit stated in pertinent part:

At the request of Mrs. Sharp's counsel, I have reviewed the circumstances surrounding her medical care and treatment in April, 1982.


From a review of Mrs. Sharp's medical records, it does appear that she in fact sustained an acute myocardial infarction on the morning of April 24, 1982, shortly after being admitted to Lutheran Medical Center.

Because Mrs. Sharp was not hospitalized and was not provided with appropriate treatment earlier in the week, it is impossible for me to state with any degree of certainty what her particular course and outcome would have been.

The purpose of appropriate treatment, which includes hospitalization, oxygen, bedrest, removal from a stressful environment, and the administration of long-acting nitrates and beta blockers, is to prevent further deterioration of angina and to bring about stabilization of the patient's condition, which, in turn, substantially reduces the risk of acute myocardial infarction. More often than not, this medical treatment is effective and brings about stabilization.

Those patients which do not improve and stabilize with the above medical therapy undergo cardiac catherization [sic] and possibly coronary artery bypass surgery. Acute myocardial infarctions are more often than not prevented even in this "high risk" group of patients.

It is not known what Mrs. Sharp's particular course would have been had she been treated properly. However, no matter what course her angina took, it is more probable than not that, with adequate treatment, Mrs. Sharp should not have sustained an acute myocardial infarction.

Because I cannot accurately predict the course and outcome of any particular patient under these circumstances, the best I can do is provide some statistical evidence concerning the risk of acute myocardial infarctions in patients with unstable angina in general. This is based upon my background, training and experience as a cardiologist, and my review of some of the medical literature.

It is generally accepted that, even in those patients with unstable angina who are appropriately treated with medical or surgical care, that overall, 15 percent will still sustain an acute myocardial infarction over the short term. Conversely, 85 percent of those patients treated appropriately do not sustain an acute myocardial infarction over the short term when given appropriate care and treatment.

It is difficult to generate precise numbers concerning the extent of the risk of acute myocardial infarction in those patients who are not treated appropriately by today's standards. However, review of some of the older medical studies from the 1950's and 1960's, which were done before the currently acceptable modes of treatment were available, provide some approximations of the extent of that risk factor. The risk factor appears to be approximately 35-40 percent. Conversely, approximately 60-65 percent would not have sustained an acute myocardial infarction even when the treatment was inappropriate by today's standards.


It is therefore my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical probability (more likely than not) that Mrs. Sharp's risk of acute myocardial infarction was substantially increased by the inappropriate care and treatment she received and that her chance of sustaining an acute myocardial infarction would have been substantially reduced had appropriate care and treatment been rendered.

The trial court granted the defense motions, and ruled that any verdict based upon evidence that hospitalizing the plaintiff would have reduced her chance of a heart attack would be too speculative to be sustained. The court concluded that in the absence of evidence that it was more likely than not that the defendants' conduct caused the plaintiff's injuries, causation could not be established.

On appeal, the court of appeals reversed the entry of summary judgment, and remanded the case for trial. The court of appeals held that causation could be established in this case upon proof that the defendants' alleged negligence was a "substantial factor" in causing the plaintiffs' injuries. 710 P.2d at 1155. A "substantial factor" was defined by the court as conduct which is of "sufficient significance in producing the harm as to lead reasonable persons to regard it as a cause and to attach responsibility." Id. The court of appeals also held that where the evidence permits a finding that the defendants' negligence increased the risk of harm to the plaintiff, the plaintiff may recover if the jury determines that the defendants' alleged negligence was a cause in fact of the loss. Id. at 1156. The court's conclusion that the plaintiff may recover for an enhancement of risk was based upon section 323(a) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965), which states One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other's person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if ... his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm.

The court ruled that Dr. Oliva's testimony that the plaintiff's chances of suffering a heart attack were increased by twenty to twenty-five percent was sufficient evidence of causation in fact to allow a jury to consider whether ...

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