Weber v. Estate of Hill

Decision Date07 April 2022
Docket Number2020-CA-00293-SCT
PartiesB. MICHAEL WEBER, M.D., AND THE OB-GYN GROUP OF LAUREL, P.A. v. ESTATE OF CAMERON CHASE HILL, DECEASED, BY AND THROUGH JANA C. BRACEWELL, ADMINISTRATRIX
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/24/2019.

MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED: 01/13/2022; DENIED AND OPINION MODIFIED AT ¶ 37 AND ¶ 38.

JONES COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. MICHAEL H. WARD, TRIAL JUDGE:.

TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: F. M. TURNER, III BENJAMIN BLUE MORGAN PEELER GRAYSON LACEY, JR. ROMNEY HASTINGS ENTREKIN.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: ROMNEY HASTINGS ENTREKIN PEELER GRAYSON LACEY, JR.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: F. M. TURNER, III.

EN BANC.

BEAM JUSTICE:

¶1. A Jones County jury returned a $4 million verdict in favor of Plaintiff, Jana C. Bracewell, Administratix of the Estate of Cameron Chase Hill, in a medical negligence/ wrongful-death suit against Defendants, B. Michael Weber, M.D., and The OB-GYN Group of Laurel, P.A. The Jones County Circuit Court reduced the jury's noneconomic-damages award from $2, 538, 322 to $500, 000 pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 11-1-60(2)(a). Defendants appeal from the judgment claiming the trial court erred by denying their posttrial motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or, in the alternative, a new trial. Plaintiff cross-appeals, claiming the trial court erred by reducing the jury's noneconomic-damages award.

¶2. We find no error in the trial court's decision to deny Defendants' motion for a JNOV or a new trial.

¶3. As to Plaintiff's cross-appeal, we agree that the trial court erred by reducing the jury's noneconomic-damages award, given that this action was filed before September 1 2004, the date the amended version of Section 11-1-60(2)(a) went into effect.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶4. In April 2001, Erica Shae Hill learned she was pregnant. Dr. Weber's partner, Dr. Robert DeSantis, was Hill's primary OB-GYN throughout her pregnancy.

¶5. On November 19, 2001, a nonstress test was performed on Shae, which showed a pattern of healthy fetal activity. On November 23, 2001, Hill went into labor around 2:30 a.m. Once the contractions were about five minutes apart, she decided to go to South Central Regional Medical Center (SCRMC) in Laurel, Mississippi. Hill arrived at SCRMC's emergency room at approximately 3:30 a.m and was admitted to the labor-and-delivery floor around 5:00 a.m. Dr. Weber, who was on call for Dr. DeSantis that night, managed Hill's care throughout labor, and he delivered Cameron Chase Hill by vaginal delivery at approximately 1:10 p.m. that afternoon.

¶6. Cameron and Hill were discharged on November 25, 2001. The next day, Cameron was taken to Forrest General Hospital because he was not eating. Physicians at Forrest General Hospital performed a lumbar puncture, which proved to be abnormal with the cerebral spinal fluid containing an elevated white blood cell count of thirty-two (six times the normal limit) and an elevated protein level of 236 (five to six times the normal limit). Cameron's Glucose level was also in the low, normal range. A CT head scan was performed on November 27, 2001, and an MRI head scan was performed on December 14, 2001.

¶7. Cameron ultimately was diagnosed with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), which is a neurological injury resulting from lack of oxygen to the brain. According to Defendants, Cameron's Forrest General Hospital records for his admission shortly after birth include a secondary diagnosis of "viral meningits - NOS."

¶8. Cameron lived only to the age of five. He died on March 23, 2007. There is no dispute that he had significant neurological deficits that required continual and significant treatment over the course of his short life.

¶9. Plaintiff filed a complaint in December 2002 on behalf of Cameron, alleging negligence on the part of Dr. Weber and The OB-GYN Group of Laurel. The complaint claimed that Dr. Weber breached the applicable standard of care by failing to recognize, appreciate, and respond to the signs and symptoms of fetal distress, ischemia, and/or hypoxia during the labor and delivery of Cameron.

¶10. Following Cameron's death in 2007, Bracewell was substituted in 2010 as the administratrix of Cameron's estate. Plaintiff filed her designation of expert witnesses in December 2013, and Defendants designated their expert witnesses in February 2014. ¶11. In September 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion to recuse then-presiding Judge Dal Williamson, which was granted on the same day. In October 2015, this Court appointed Special Judge Michael Ward to preside over the matter.

¶12. Following a series of continuances, trial began on October 14, 2019. After Plaintiff's case-in-chief, Defendants moved for a directed verdict on basis that Plaintiff's evidence "failed to close the critical and substantive evidentiary gap regarding the causation element of her medical negligence claim." The trial court denied the motion and proceeded with Defendants' case-in-chief. Afterwards, Defendants renewed the motion for directed verdict. The trial court denied the motion, saying that, "While I do think it's a little thin, I'm going to let it go to the jury."

¶13. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff, awarding damages as follows: $1.2 million for Cameron's lost wages; $261, 677.52 for Cameron's past medical expenses; and $2, 538, 322.48 for Cameron's noneconomic damages. The trial court reduced the noneconomic jury award to $500, 000, which left a total verdict of $1, 961, 677.52. ¶14. Both parties filed posttrial motions. Plaintiff requested that the trial court alter or amend the judgment to eliminate the reduction of the jury's verdict for noneconomic damages. Defendants requested a JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial. They claimed that Plaintiff had failed to prove the causation element of her medical-negligence claim; thus, they were entitled to judgment in their favor as a matter of law. Alternatively, they claimed that the jury's verdict was inconsistent with the overwhelming weight of unrebutted, objective medical evidence and was clearly based on bias, passion, and prejudice. The trial court denied both motions. These appeals followed.

DISCUSSION

I. Whether Defendants were entitled to a JNOV because Plaintiff failed to offer any admissible expert testimony at trial that the HIE, more likely than not developed within the relevant six-hour window between 7:00 a.m. and delivery at 1:10 p.m.

¶15. Defendants argue that Plaintiff's theory of liability is that Dr. Weber breached the applicable standard of care by allowing labor to continue beyond 7:00 a.m. rather than performing a C-section delivery at the time.[1] They contend that this required the Plaintiff to prove by expert testimony that a C-section delivery at approximately 7:00 a.m. would have provided Cameron with a greater-than-50-percent chance of a substantially better outcome than was obtained. Defendants contend that a critical evidentiary gap has existed since before the summary-judgment stage, which was not cured at trial. They maintain that Plaintiff's proof lacked expert testimony to satisfy the causation element of her medical-negligence claim. And they maintain that Plaintiff could not prove that an earlier C-section would have provided a greater-than-50-percent chance of a substantially better outcome without first proving the probability that the HIE developed during the six-hour window between 7:00 a.m. and 1:10 p.m. They submit that none of the seven physicians who testified at trial, including Plaintiff's two experts, were able to reliably conclude that Cameron's HIE developed during the relevant six-hour window.

¶16. In a medical-malpractice action, the plaintiff must provide evidence that proper treatment or care "would have provided the patient 'with a greater than fifty (50) percent chance of a [substantially] better result than was in fact obtained.'" Harris v. Shields, 568 So.2d 269, 274 (Miss. 1990) (alteration in original) (quoting Ladner v. Campbell, 515 So.2d 882, 889 (Miss. 1987)). Thus, "[a]dequate proof of proximate cause . . . requires evidence that in the absence of the alleged malpractice, a [significantly] better result was probable or more likely than not." Id. (third alteration in original) (internal quotations marks omitted) (quoting Ladner, 515 So.2d at 888).

¶17. "[N]egligence and causation may be established by circumstantial evidence, 'but this rule is qualified to the extent that the circumstances shown must be such as to take the case out of the realm of conjecture and place it within the field of legitimate inference.'" Est. of Gibson ex rel. Gibson v. Magnolia Healthcare, Inc., 91 So.3d 616, 625 (Miss. 2012) (quoting Tombigbee Elec. Power Ass'n v. Gandy, 216 Miss. 444, 454, 62 So.2d 567 (1953)). "'[O]nly in rare and exceptional cases' should the court take such a case from the jury." Id. (quoting Miss. Valley Gas Co. v. Est. of Walker, 725 So.2d 139, 145-46 (Miss. 1998), overruled on other grounds by Adams v. U.S. Homecrafters, Inc., 744 So.2d 736 (Miss. 1999)).

¶18. Shortly after Shae arrived at the hospital at approximately 3:00 a.m. on November 23, an external monitor was applied to Shae to measure her contractions and record the baby's heart rate. According to Dr. Frederick Gonzalez, who testified on behalf of Plaintiff as an expert in obstetrics and maternal-fetal medicine, the baby showed signs of "trouble from the beginning." The fetal heart-monitor tracings were abnormal, indicating what Dr. Gonzalez described as late decelerations.

¶19. He explained that there are three types of fetal heart-rate decelerations: early decelerations, which indicate head compression and generally are not harmful to the baby variable decelerations, which occur when the...

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