Thornton v. Charleston Area Medical Center

Decision Date18 February 1975
Docket NumberNo. 13484,13484
Citation213 S.E.2d 102,158 W.Va. 504
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesRichard Harold THORNTON, Jr. v. CHARLESTON AREA MEDICAL CENTER, etc., et al.
Syllabus by the Court

1. At common law, an injured party may have only one full recovery, and complete satisfaction from any tort-feasor is satisfaction of the total damages suffered.

2. If an injured person uses ordinary care in selecting a physician or hospital, then the law regards an injury resulting from the negligence of the physician or hospital as a part of the immediate and direct damages which naturally flow from the original injury.

3. As the law regards the negligence of the one who caused the original injury as the proximate cause of the aggravated injuries occurring by reason of the negligence of the treating physician or hospital, the original tort-feasor is liable for all damages, including the successive damages inflicted by the physician or hospital.

4. The case of Mier v. Yoho, 114 W.Va. 248, 171 S.E. 535 (1933); Conley v. Hill, 115 W.Va. 175, 174 S.E. 883 (1934); and Markarenko v. Scott, 132 W.Va. 430, 55 S.E.2d 88 (1949) are overruled insofar as those decisions adopted a conclusive presumption that an injured person's unqualified release of an original tort-feasor from liability for personal injuries, or the dismissal with prejudice of an action against such tort-feasor, made after receiving treatment for such injuries, bars recovery from successive tort-feasors by the injured person for acts of malpractice or negligent hospital treatment.

5. The execution of a general release in favor of the original tort-feasor or dismissal with prejudice of a civil action against such tort-feasor is Prima facie evidence of the intention of the injured party to accept the same as full satisfaction of all damages which naturally flow from the original injury, in the absence of language or circumstances in the release or dismissal indicating a contrary intention of the parties; but whether such release or dismissal is a bar to further action for malpractice against the treating physician or hospital providing care is a question of fact to be answered from the intention of the parties.

6. To determine the intention of the parties with reference to release of successive tort-feasors, the injured party is entitled to introduce parol evidence to explain the terms of a contract of release in favor of, or the circumstances attendant to a dismissal with prejudice of a civil action against, the original tort-feasor.

Guy R. Bucci, Charleston, for appellant.

W. T. O'Farrell, Charleston, for Charleston Area Med. Center.

Wilson Anderson, Charleston, for Dr. Sunday and Dr. Pushkin.

HADEN, Chief Justice:

This is an appeal from a final order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia, affirming as plainly right the final judgment of the Common Pleas Court of that county, sustaining the motion of Charleston Area Medical Center, Inc. and Harold B. Sunday, M.D. and Jack Pushkin, M.D. for summary judgment.

In rendering judgment, the trial court ruled as a matter of law that an injured person's unqualified release of an original tort-feasor from liability for personal injuries made after receiving medical care for such injuries, prevents a further recovery by the injured person from treating physicians and hospitals providing such care as alleged successive and independent tort-feasors for alleged negligent treatment causing additional damage.

Since 1933, the foregoing principle has been the law of this jurisdiction and has been applied to prevent a second successful civil action and further recovery against alleged successive and independent tort-feasors who may have aggravated a plaintiff's original injuries by reason of negligent treatment of those injuries. Mier v. Yoho, 114 W.Va. 248, 171 S.E. 535 (1933); Conley v. Hill, 115 W.Va. 175, 174 S.E. 883 (1934); Accord, Makarenko v. Scott, 132 W.Va. 430, 55 S.E.2d 88 (1949).

We granted this appeal to re-examine the validity of the so-called 'Mier rule.' The basic facts of this case are indistinguishable from those previously presented to this Court in the Mier v. Yoho and Conley v. Hill cases, Supra. The sole issue presented is: Should the law presume that when an injured person effects a recovery from an original tort-feasor for personal injuries after receiving allegedly negligent medical care for such injuries which aggravated the original injuries, he thereby intended to accept such recovery as total satisfaction for the original and succeeding tortious injuries inflicted by both the original tort-feasor and those who rendered negligent medical care?

In this case, Richard Harold Thornton, Jr. suffered personal injuries occasioned by the negligence of Juanita and Harold D. Cogar in the operation of their automobile which collided with a motorcycle driven by Thornton on June 24, 1969. Thornton's injuries, including a broken leg, required immediate hospitalization and treatment which was rendered between June 24, 1969 and August 12, 1969. The Charleston General Hospital, a predecessor corporation to Charleston Area Medical Center, Inc., provided hospitalization to Thornton, where he received treatment from Doctors Sunday and Pushkin.

On April 16, 1970, and while Thornton was an infant, his guardian petitioned the Common Pleas Court of Kanawha County, by way of summary proceeding provided for in West Virginia Code, Chapter 44, Article 10, Section 14, to approve a settlement of his personal injury claim against the original tort-feasors. The final order in that proceeding reflected approval of a settlement in the amount of $10,000.00 and 'ADJUDGED and ORDERED that said Juanita Cogar and Harold D. Cogar be, and they are hereby, forever discharged and acquitted of any and all claims of said infant on account of said accident.' The judgment order also acknowledged that certain medical expenses had been incurred in the treatment of Thornton for the personal injuries, and directed his guardian to pay from the settlement figure as follows: 'The Charleston General Hospital $1,202.50 (and) Miyakawa, Sunday & Pushkin, M.D.s $900.00'.

After reaching his majority, Thornton instituted the instant civil action against the appellees herein, alleging that the original personal injuries suffered by him at the hands of the Cogars had been aggravated by the alleged negligent treatment of his physicians and the hospital, resulting in pain and suffering, permanent injuries and total damage in the amount of $500,000.00. At the close of the pleadings, the defendants moved for summary judgment, which was granted on the basis of the Mier rule. The appeal followed.

The appellant contends that the trial court erred in failing to determine whether there was genuine issue of material fact concerning plaintiff's intention 'not to release the respondents when releasing the original tort-feasors' and in determining that the negotiated settlement with the original tort-feasors precluded a second recovery from the hospital and physicians 'who were successive, independent tort-feasors in the negligent and unskillful treatment of the petitioner's original injuries.'

Any discussion of the problem posed in this case should begin with a recognition of three principles which have been accorded unquestioned and consistent application in the tort law of this State. First, at common law, an injured party may have only one full recovery, and complete satisfaction from any tort-feasor is satisfaction of the total damages suffered. New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Company v. Eary, 115 W.Va. 46, 174 S.E. 573 (1934). Second, if an injured person uses ordinary care in selecting a physician, then the law regards an injury resulting from mistakes of the physician or his want of skill as a part of the immediate and direct damages which naturally flow from the original injury. Mier v. Yoho, Supra; Conley v. Hill, Supra; Makarenko v. Scott, Supra. Third, as the law regards the negligence of the one who caused the original injury as the proximate cause of aggravated injuries occurring by reason of the negligence of the physician, the original tort-feasor is liable for all damages, which include the successive damages inflicted by the physician. The latter two rules apply with equal force to damages caused by the negligence of hospitals rendering medical care. See Comment, 69 W.Va.L.Rev. 374 (1967); Annot.,39 A.L.R.3d 260 (1971); 22 Am.Jur.2d, Damages §§ 112, 113 (1965). This Court reaffirms the continuing validity of the foregoing propositions of law. Nothing in the discussion and rulings which follow should be construed to abrogate these principles in any degree.

Commencing with the above principles, this Court in Mier v. Yoho, Supra, took a quantum leap and held:

'An injured person's unqualified released of tort-feasor from liability for personal injuries, which release was made after receiving treatment of a physician for such injuries, prevents recovery by injured person of the physician for alleged negligent treatment.' Id., syllabus point 2., 114 W.Va. 248, 171 S.E. 535.

The following year, the Court considered whether a dismissal with prejudice of an action against the original tort-feasor had like effect to a release and reaffirmed the Mier ruling in Conley v. Hill, Supra, holding:

'Where a person has been injured by the wrongful act of another, a dismissal with prejudice of his action against the tort-feasor bars any subsequent claim against a physician called to treat the injury for acts of malpractice occurring prior to the institution of the action.' Id., syllabus point 3., 115 W.Va. 175, 174 S.E. 883.

At this juncture, we believe it relevant to note that an entirely different set of rules governs civil actions instituted by an injured party who seeks further recovery from a Joint tort-feasor because he is unsatisfied with the amount previously recovered against another joint...

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