Kanter v. Metropolitan Medical Center

Decision Date15 April 1986
Docket NumberNo. C6-85-1835,C6-85-1835
Citation384 N.W.2d 914
PartiesJeanette KANTER, as Trustee for Harold and Jeanette Kanter, the natural parents and heirs of the deceased Valerie Beth Kanter, Appellant, v. METROPOLITAN MEDICAL CENTER, Susan Murray, Respondents.
CourtMinnesota Court of Appeals

Syllabus by the Court

1. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that an expert witness was required to establish a nurse's duty of care with respect to assisting a psychiatric patient with her bath.

2. The trial court abused its discretion when it refused to grant a stay to allow the procurement of an expert.

3. The trial court did not err in allowing an amendment of the complaint to name the proper parties.

Patrick W. Ledray, Michael J. Minenko, Katz, Lange, Davis & Manka, Ltd., Minneapolis, for appellant.

Sandra J. Skluzacek, Mahoney, Dougherty & Mahoney, Minneapolis, for Metropolitan Medical Center.

Carol A. Hooten, Jardine, Logan & O'Brien, St. Paul, for Susan Murray.

Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc, consisting of POPOVICH, C.J., and FOLEY, HUSPENI, LESLIE, FORSBERG, NIERENGARTEN and RANDALL, JJ.

OPINION

NIERENGARTEN, Judge.

Jeanette Kanter, as trustee, sues for the wrongful death of her daughter, Valerie, who drowned in a bathtub while a psychiatric patient under the supervision of nurse Susan Murray, an employee of Metropolitan Medical Center (MMC). Kanter argues that only ordinary negligence is required to be shown but the trial court held that Murray's decision to leave a psychiatric patient alone in the bathtub for a few minutes, required professional judgment and therefore a jury could not determine whether negligence had occurred without the aid of an expert witness. In the alternative, Kanter asserts that if expert testimony is required, the trial court abused its discretion by failing to grant Kanter a stay of its order for judgment to allow Kanter time to obtain an expert. Summary judgment was granted respondents Murray and MMC and the trustee appeals. Murray and MMC filed notices of review claiming the trial court erred in allowing the amendment of the named plaintiff to the suit following the appointment of Jeanette Kanter as trustee. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand for trial.

FACTS

Valerie Beth Kanter, age 31, with borderline intellectual function and acting out behavior, was admitted to the locked psychiatric ward of MMC on November 12, 1980 for evaluation. She had a long history of treatment by a number of facilities and therapists.

On December 2, Valerie told Susan Murray, a registered nurse, specializing in mental health nursing for about 12 years, that she wanted to take a tub bath. Murray ran the bath, helped Valerie in the tub, helped wash her hair, scrubbed her back and sat and visited with her while she finished her bath. Valerie stated that she wanted to be left alone to relax in the tub for a short time and assured Murray that she would be all right. Murray left the room for a few minutes to help another patient and upon returning a few minutes later, found Valerie lying in the tub with her face in the water.

Valerie died as a result of drowning.

Murray and MMC sought to dismiss the ensuing wrongful death suit because Valerie's parents brought the action in their own names under the wrongful death statute, Minn.Stat. Sec. 573.02 (1980), instead of in the name of a trustee. Kanters then proceeded to have Jeanette Kanter appointed as trustee and amended their original complaint on December 22, 1982 to reflect Jeanette Kanter as the trustee. This amendment was beyond the two year limitation period of Minn.Stat. Sec. 573.02 (1980) and Murray and MMC sought summary judgment. The trial court allowed the amendment of the party to the suit under Rule 17.01 and allowed the amendment to relate back to the initial summons and complaint under Rule 15.03, of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure. But the motion for summary judgment and the request to certify the question as important and doubtful were denied.

A pretrial conference was held on June 17, 1985 during which counsel and the court discussed the trustee's failure to disclose an intent to introduce expert medical testimony on the issues of standard of care, breach of duty and causation. The court scheduled a hearing for June 26 at which time it intended to consider Murray and MMC's summary judgment motions relative to the trustee's failure to procure a medical expert. Murray and MMC asserted that the trustee had failed to present a prima facie case of negligence due to its failure to produce any expert evidence demonstrating Murray's care of Valerie Kanter departed from the appropriate standard of care. The trustee opposed the motions asserting either res ipsa loquitur/or ordinary negligence applies. The trustee also requested a stay of the court's order for judgment in the event the court ruled in Murray and MMC's favor. The trial court entered summary judgment for Murray and MMC dismissing the complaint. The trustee appeals and Murray and MMC's cross-appeals followed.

ISSUES

1. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in determining that expert testimony was required to assist a jury in determining whether nurse Murray was negligent in choosing to leave Valerie Kanter, an adult psychiatric patient with acting out behavior, alone in the bathtub for a few minutes?

2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion by refusing to grant plaintiff a stay of its order for judgment so that she could obtain a medical expert to testify?

3. Did the trial court err in allowing plaintiff to amend the named plaintiff to the suit?

ANALYSIS
1. Expert witness:

At the summary judgment hearing the trustee asserted that the reasonable person standard applies because bathing requires no special knowledge or training and the medical reports, nurses' patient care notes and other sources were sufficient for the jury to "infer negligence" without an expert, based on its own common experience and practical knowledge.

Murray and MMC assert that professional judgment is required by psychiatric nurses in determining the proper amount of supervision they should provide a mental patient.

The trial court ruled that expert evidence was necessary to determine whether nurse Murray met the standard of care, stating:

The ordinary lay jury cannot be allowed to speculate as to what duty a trained specialist has or had under the circumstances and as to whether the actions of Ms. Murray met that standard.

Whether a trial court should allow expert testimony is governed by Rule 702 of the Minnesota Rules of Evidence. That rule states:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

The comments to that rule indicate that whether an expert's opinion may assist the trier of fact is a decision which lies within the discretion of the trial court. This discretion is broad, and should not be reversed, absent a clear abuse of that discretion. Dunshee v. Douglas, 255 N.W.2d 42, 47 (Minn.1977).

In a psychiatric ward the potential tendencies of patients suffering from mental illness are not so easily determined by one without special training and knowledge. Even though the deceased was once found lying in the (empty) bathtub several weeks before her death, there is nothing in the record to indicate that she had suicidal tendencies. The advantage of an expert's testimony in this case would be to assist the jury in understanding the nature of the patient's mental illness, whether suicidal tendencies are associated with the patient's specific illness, and finally, given the patient's history, whether the patient may have given notice that she would act on those tendencies. Jury guesswork is to be discouraged if the use of expert testimony can assist the jury in determining these essential facts. See Minn.R.Evid. 702.02; Atwater Creamery v. Western National Mutual Insurance Company, 366 N.W.2d 271, 279 (Minn.1985). The trial court's decision requiring expert testimony in this case was not an abuse of its discretion.

2. Refusal to stay judgment:

Here the trustee had notice at the pre-trial conference that Murray and MMC would move for summary judgment based on her failure to identify an expert witness. When the summary judgment motion was considered nine days later, trustee stood firm in its position and did not produce an expert. The trial court ruled that the trustee needed one and then, without allowing the trustee to go ahead and procure an expert, granted summary judgment.

The trial court abused the discretionary power it possesses under Rule 58.02 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure in refusing to grant the stay of entry of judgment. 1 A stay would not prejudice Murray and MMC. We reverse the dismissal and remand the case for trial on the strength of the trustee's representations at oral hearing that it has procured an expert witness. The date of trial should be continued to such a date as to allow the usual discovery as to expert witnesses in order to allow both parties adequate time to prepare for trial.

3. Amendment of suit:

Murray and MMC asserts the trial court erred in allowing an amendment to the pleadings after the two-year statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases had expired.

The trustee argues this issue is not reviewable by this court since the trial court denied summary judgment on this issue and refused to certify the question as important and doubtful. 2 This court may consider the validity of the amendment since its validity could determine whether the trial court had jurisdiction to hear the cause of action.

The trial court allowed amendment of the plaintiff to the suit under rule 17.01 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure and noted...

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