Court of Appeals reinstates malpractice death case
A unanimous panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals recently reinstated the death claim filed by the family of Burr Needham. He died in the Mercy Memorial Nursing Center, where he was recovering from a fractured hip. The cause of death was determined to be "acute morphine intoxication", and the family suggested, not surprisingly that he had been over-medicated.
The local judge had dismissed the family's claim, relying on a single answer taken from the Plaintiff's expert's deposition, acknowledging that the expert could not confirm that the level of Mr. Needham's morphine intoxication was higher than a therapeutic level, at the time of death. The expert explained that the two blood samples taken five days after Mr. Needham's death could not be used to calculate the actual level of morphine circulating in his system because of issues relating to "pooling" and redistribution of blood, and the lack of data confirming where, in the body, the post-mortem blood samples originated. The expert had testified that the totality of the evidence left no other possible explanation of death.
The reviewing court noted that the "apparent concession" relied upon by the insurance attorneys and the Court to dismiss the family's claim was "taken entirely out of context" and "completely ignored" the substance of his testimony. The Court spent several pages reviewing the actual testimony to document that the expert's opinion regarding cause of death (i.e., "morphine intoxication", as originally designated by the chief medical examiner) although circumstantial, was based on evidence that "facilitate[d] a reasonable inference of causation and not mere speculation", and that it had the necessary "basis in established fact." On this basis, the Court reinstated the family's claim and instructed the local judge to allow the jury to determine the cause of death, since there were facts from which a jury could reasonably conclude that the cause of death was precisely what the medical examiner said it was: an overdose of morphine.