In a lawsuit alleging a fatal medication error against a physician, a nurse, and the hospital that employed them, the Appellate Division of New York, Third Department reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages. The court ruled in Marsh v. Arnot Ogden Medical Center, 91 A.D.3d 1070 (2012), that the plaintiff had pleaded sufficient facts to defeat a motion to dismiss and two motions for partial summary judgment on the question of punitive damages. The legal standards for punitive damages in New York differ greatly from those in Maryland, where they may be far more difficult to obtain.
The decedent, Leslie E. Marshall, was a patient at defendant Arnot Ogden Medical Center (AOMC) in April 2009. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, a nurse gave him an injection of an insulin-reducing medication by mistake. The plaintiff, who is Marshall’s daughter and the executor of his estate, alleges that she warned the nurse prior to the injection that Marshall was not diabetic and was not prescribed insulin, but that the nurse injected the drug anyway. The nurse contacted the attending physician by telephone to inform her of the error. The doctor instructed the nurse to check Marshall’s glucose level every two hours, and to contact her if it dropped below 120. At 8:15 p.m., Marshall’s level was reportedly 132, but by 10:15 it had dropped to 107. The doctor then allegedly told the nurse to stop testing Marshall’s glucose until morning. The next test, at 6:15 a.m., showed a glucose level of 15. Marshall died later that morning, reportedly due to insulin overdose caused by the nurse’s medication error.
The plaintiff sued the doctor, the nurse, and AOMC in New York Supreme Court. The doctor moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, and the nurse and AOMC each moved for partial summary judgment as to punitive damages. The trial court granted all three motions, and the plaintiff appealed. The appellate division reversed the three orders, finding that the plaintiff had established issues of fact that could lead to punitive damages. The standard for punitive damages, it said, was proof of a defendant’s “reckless indifference equivalent to willful or intentional misdoing,” id. at 1071, which could be shown by the nurse’s alleged failure to heed the plaintiff’s warning or the doctor’s alleged instruction to stop the glucose tests.
Maryland generally has a different standard, making recovery of punitive damages appear much less likely. In Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, 601 A.2d 633 (Ct. App. Md. 1992), a products liability case, the Court of Appeals held that punitive damages are meant to punish and deter defendants, and therefore they focus exclusively on a defendant’s conduct. It affirmed prior Maryland rulings requiring proof of “actual malice” on the part of a defendant, which it defined for product liability as actual knowledge of a defect with intentional disregard of the potential harm. It also increased the burden of proof, requiring a plaintiff to produce clear and convincing evidence of such malice. While the plaintiff in Marsh might have a viable claim for punitive damages in a New York court, the standard and burden of proof would be much more difficult in Maryland.
The Maryland attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen can assist victims of medication errors, who have been injured by drugs prescribed, dispensed, or administered incorrectly. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.
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