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Hospitals Off Hook for Independent Liability in Suit

June 27, 2008

By Brian Kelly, Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

Jun. 26–A state Supreme Court judge has prohibited a former north country woman from presenting claims of independent liability against two medical facilities when her malpractice suit goes to a second trial in September.

Judge Peter A. Schwerzmann said in a decision filed Tuesday at the Jefferson County clerk’s office that it is possible a jury still may find Samaritan Medical Center and the now-defunct Mercy Hospital “vicariously liable” for injuries suffered in 1993 by Michelle Anderson, now of New Mexico.

Mrs. Anderson sued the facilities and several doctors in 1996 after she was committed to the mental health ward at Mercy with a diagnosis of depression when she actually was suffering from a rare form of encephalitis, a viral disorder that causes inflammation of the brain. The inflammation caused permanent damage to her brain before the proper diagnosis was made at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Mrs. Anderson’s case has produced one of the longest jury trials in Jefferson County history. A 2005 trial lasted six weeks, with a jury clearing Mercy, Samaritan and the doctors of any wrongdoing.

She asked Judge Schwerzmann to set aside the verdict, arguing that the weight of evidence presented at the trial was counter to the verdict. In March 2006, the judge denied the motion and two months later dismissed Mrs. Anderson’s complaint against all defendants, citing the jury’s verdict.

She appealed to the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which last July reversed Judge Schwerzmann’s order dismissing the complaint and ordered a new trial. The appellate court followed up the reversal in March, ordering that the new trial consider only the issue of an “error of judgment” charge, which related to just one physician, Dr. Maritza Santana.

Dr. Santana was a psychiatrist at Mercy when she treated Mrs. Anderson. It is claimed in the suit she was negligent because she accepted the mental illness diagnosis provided by psychiatrists at Guthrie Ambulatory Health Care Clinic on Fort Drum without considering a possible neurological cause for Mrs. Anderson’s illness.

Samaritan and Mercy contended that the appellate court’s March ruling essentially dismissed them from the lawsuit and asked that the issue of any liability on their part not be allowed at the new trial. Mercy ran its mental health ward in 1993 under an operating agreement with Samaritan, and its doctors, including Dr. Santana, were considered Mercy employees. In 1994, Samaritan took over the ward and its workers became Samaritan employees.

Judge Schwerzmann agreed that Mrs. Anderson should not be allowed at trial to assert any claims of independent liability against the two hospitals. However, in the event Dr. Santana is found negligent, the jury can determine whether Samaritan or Mercy is vicariously liable.

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