Court imposes a settlement set-off in case against Hutzel Hospital
Chelsie Barker suffered cerebral palsy at birth and horrible lifetime damages. Her mother was incarcerated in the Wayne County Jail when she began to suffer abdominal cramping, pre-term. Mother was taken to Hutzel where she was examined and then returned to jail, despite having dilated 2 cm. Chelsie was born about two hours later, at arrival in the Defendant's Medical Clinic, with no detectable heart rate or respiration. Her family pursued a section 1983 claim against the jail for "deliberate indifference" and a malpractice claim against the Hospital. The latter claim was moved to the State Court. Ultimately the federal court action for constitutional violation of Chelsie's rights was settled for 8 million dollars. The Hospital claim was taken to trial, where the jury found in her favor and allocated fault 60% to the Hospital, 30% to the jail, and 10% to particular jail employees. When the jury award added up to less than the prior settlement (it was $6.1 million), the Hospital asked the Court to give it credit for the prior settlement. The Court declined, noting that "joint and several" liability applies only within malpractice claims under Michigan's tort "reform" laws, and therefore the Hospital couldn't claim a credit for money awarded for a third party's non-malpractice fault.
The Hospital appealed and a majority of the three-judge Court of Appeals panel reversed the lower court. They held that a set-off was necessary in order to avoid a disfavored "double-recovery" or duplication of damages. The majority based this conclusion on its ruling that the settled Federal claim was, by its nature, a malpractice action. The dissenting judge objected to this categorization, noting that the Federal action was an explicitly recognized constitutional tort and therefore did not fall within the parameters of the Michigan statute preserving joint and several liability only in malpractice actions.