McKersie v. Barnes Hosp., 66728

Citation912 S.W.2d 562
Decision Date17 October 1995
Docket NumberNo. 66728,66728
PartiesSara McKERSIE, Plaintiff/Respondent, v. BARNES HOSPITAL, Defendant/Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)

Thomas Blumeyer Weaver, Paul Nicholas Venker, Armstrong, Teasdale, Schlafly, Davis & Dicus, St. Louis, for appellant.

Mark I. Bronson, Newman & Bronson, St. Louis, for respondent.

GARY M. GAERTNER, Judge.

Appellant, Barnes Hospital ("Barnes"), appeals from entry of a judgment in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis in favor of respondent, Sara McKersie ("plaintiff"), on her medical malpractice action for injuries she suffered when her appendix ruptured and infected her right ovary and fallopian tube, requiring their surgical removal. We affirm.

We view the facts in the light most favorable to the verdict. On June 13, 1986, plaintiff, a twenty-nine year-old mother of one, visited her internist, Dr. John Grant, complaining of abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and fever. Dr. Grant examined plaintiff and diagnosed her as having gastroenteritis or possibly appendicitis. Plaintiff declined Dr. Grant's suggestion to go to a hospital at that time. Later that evening, however, plaintiff's pain increased and she called Dr. Grant, who again instructed her to go to Barnes. Dr. Grant called the emergency room at Barnes to let the staff know plaintiff was coming in with possible appendicitis. Plaintiff arrived at the emergency room around 11:00 p.m.

Around 1:50 a.m. on June 14, 1986, Dr. Richard Johnston, an emergency room intern, examined plaintiff. Dr. Johnston employed a system of differential diagnosis: listing possible illnesses in order of seriousness and comparing them with the symptoms displayed by the patient. Dr. Johnston knew appendicitis was one of the primary concerns with respect to plaintiff. Dr. Johnston conducted pelvic and rectal examinations, took an X-ray, and performed blood tests. As noted in Dr. Johnston's report, plaintiff complained of the following: constant pain in her abdomen, localized in the right lower quadrant (where the appendix is located), fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Plaintiff also exhibited tenderness in the lower right abdominal quadrant deep in the pelvis, a mass on her right ovary, and an abnormally high white blood cell count ("WBC") of 13,200. Nearly all of the above are symptoms of appendicitis.

In the diagnosis section of his report, Dr. Johnston wrote plaintiff had gastroenteritis, and a possible luteal (ovarian) cyst. After examining plaintiff, Dr. Johnston phoned a resident gynecologist, who after hearing a summary of plaintiff's symptoms, agreed plaintiff had an ovarian cyst. Dr. Johnston also phoned Dr. Grant and told him of plaintiff's symptoms. However, Dr. Johnston apparently neglected to tell Dr. Grant that he (Johnston) was an intern who had never diagnosed appendicitis before; nor did he tell Dr. Grant of plaintiff's abnormally high WBC. Dr. Grant later testified in a deposition plaintiff's WBC would have raised a "red flag" to him with respect to the possibility of appendicitis, and he would have done things differently had he known of it. Dr. Grant also stated, had he known of Dr. Johnston's status as an intern with no experience with appendicitis, he would have requested that a senior resident experienced in diagnosing appendicitis examine plaintiff, or he would have gone there himself.

Dr. Johnston received Dr. Grant's permission to discharge plaintiff. Dr. Johnston told plaintiff she did not have appendicitis and was not going to need surgery, informed her she either had a severe case of the flu (gastroenteritis) or an ovarian cyst, suggested plaintiff talk with her gynecologist about the possible cyst problem, and also recommended she talk with Dr. Grant later that morning. Dr. Johnston discharged plaintiff around 3:00 a.m.

Plaintiff talked with Dr. Grant on the phone and was told by him to follow the instructions of the emergency room physician. Plaintiff contacted Dr. Durel, her gynecologist, who, believing her problem to be a cyst, recommended bed rest. Plaintiff's ailments did not subside, however, and on June 19, 1986, she experienced a vaginal discharge of a yellowish-green hue and foul odor. Understandably alarmed, plaintiff went to see Dr. Durel, who examined her and found a mass on her right ovary. An ultrasound was taken at St. Mary's Hospital, where Dr. Durel had plaintiff admitted as a patient. Plaintiff was administered intravenous antibiotics at the hospital for the next several days. On June 25, 1986, plaintiff started feeling worse. Exploratory surgery was performed, wherein it was discovered plaintiff's appendix had ruptured. Pus and bacteria from the rupture had spread into the pelvic area and completely infected plaintiff's right ovary and fallopian tube; as a result, both had to be removed, along with the ruptured appendix.

Plaintiff filed this medical malpractice action on June 10, 1988. 1 Plaintiff alleged Dr. Johnston's failure to diagnose her appendicitis constituted negligence and caused the eventual rupture of her appendix and consequent loss of her ovary and fallopian tube. A five-day trial was held in April of 1994.

Plaintiff's medical expert, Dr. Howard Schwartz, testified that, on the facts set out here, it was his opinion plaintiff's appendix had ruptured on the morning of June 14, 1986, shortly after she left Barnes' emergency room. Dr. Schwartz testified that many of the symptoms displayed by plaintiff at the emergency room and noted in Dr. Johnston's report were consistent with appendicitis but inconsistent with gastroenteritis: the constant pain localized in plaintiff's lower right abdominal quadrant (as opposed to generalized abdominal pain), the tenderness in the right adnexa, the vomiting, the loss of appetite, and the abnormally high white blood cell count. According to Dr. Schwartz, "this is a classic presentation for appendicitis."

Dr. Schwartz acknowledged that some of plaintiff's symptoms were also consistent with gastroenteritis (the fever and diarrhea) or luteal cysts (ovarian mass). However, Dr. Schwartz stated that Dr. Johnston's diagnosis would require two different illnesses to explain all her symptoms, while "one common disease [appendicitis] would explain it all." Dr. Schwartz testified that, as a whole, plaintiff's symptoms were more consistent with appendicitis. According to Dr. Schwartz, in light of the symptoms of appendicitis displayed by plaintiff, its relatively common occurrence, and its seriousness if left untreated, Dr. Johnston should have erred on the side of caution and sent plaintiff to the operating room for surgery. Dr. Schwartz opined that, by failing to diagnose plaintiff's appendicitis and failing to admit plaintiff under the care of a surgeon who would have taken her appendix out in a timely fashion, Dr. Johnston did not exercise the degree of skill and learning ordinarily used by members of the profession under the same or similar circumstances, and failed to meet the expected standard of care.

Finally, Dr. Schwartz testified that because she lost her right ovary and fallopian tube, plaintiff "would have a diminished chance of reproducing, of having another child." On cross-examination, however, Dr. Schwartz stated plaintiff was still "more likely than not" capable of conceiving with the remaining ovary and fallopian tube, and agreed nothing indicated an "extra problem" as to conception. For her part, plaintiff testified she was "fearful of conceiving" and having another cesarean section performed in the same area where the appendectomy had been performed. Plaintiff also testified to "going through a grieving process of losing a part of my body, and especially my reproductive system."

Barnes' motion for a directed verdict at the close of the evidence was denied. At the end of trial, plaintiff dismissed the other defendants named in her petition (her gynecologist Dr. Justin Durel, the Shaner, Durel & Blaskiewics, Inc. medical group, and St. Mary's Hospital) and submitted the case as to Barnes only. 2 On April 15, 1994, the jury returned a verdict awarding plaintiff $624,000 in damages, itemized as $314,000 in past non-economic damages and $310,000 in future non-economic damages. The trial court reduced this award to $474,000. Barnes' motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for a new trial, and for remittitur were denied. This appeal followed.

For its first point on appeal, Barnes contends the trial court erred in overruling its motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Barnes argues that under the "honest error of judgment" rule, plaintiff failed to make a submissible claim of negligence for failure to diagnose her appendicitis. In reviewing rulings on motions for directed verdict and judgments notwithstanding the verdict, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, giving the prevailing party the benefit of all reasonable inferences and disregarding evidence unfavorable to the jury's verdict. Washington by Washington v. Barnes Hosp., 897 S.W.2d 611, 615 (Mo. banc 1995). A trial court may not withdraw the case from the jury unless there is...

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