Doctors lose fight to dismiss malpractice claim because "patient was drunk when he incurred original injury."
Dr. Richard J. Hartman, Jr., D.O. and Christina Sheely, D.O., allegedly failed to treat compartment syndrome that Donald Beebe experienced after suffering foot injuries in a snowmobile accident. On his 33d birthday, Beebe drank about 11 cans of beer between noon and 8 p.m. while working on his snowmobile in the garage. As he drove it accross the lawn, "it dumped me off," and Beebe suffered fractures to the tibia and fibula. At the E.R., his blood alcohol measured 0.13: above the legal limit to operate a car or RV in public. The Defendants treated his injuries. Five months later he was diagnosed with "sustained flexion contractures of his toes in the right foot...most likely from a deep compartment syndrome in the leg."Beebe filed suit against the doctors, alleging that their failure to recognize, diagnose and treat compartment syndrome had left him with a permanently lame leg. The Defendants responded with a motion to dismiss his claim, arguing that because he was intoxicated when he suffered the original injury, and because he was more than fifty percent at fault for his disability, by statute he was not allowed to file suit.
The parties had stipulated that Beebe was more than fifty percent at fault in causing the snowmobile incident, but argued that he was not at fault in causing the event that left him crippled--i.e., the failure to properly treat his leg fractures. The trial court concluded that the snowmobile fall was "the event" where fault is measured by statute and dismissed his claim. The Court of Appeals reversed. The Court pointed out that Beebe's attorneys were too late in arguing that this statute, addressing intoxication that causes "an accident or event" does not apply to create an absolute defense to malpractice claims. Nevertheless, under the Michigan Supreme Court's rule requiring the tight interpretation of legislative language, the absolute defense available under this statute applies only if intoxication was "the cause" of "the event" that caused "the injury." In Beeby's circumstances, he has alleged a new injury suffered as a result of negligent treatment: therefore, by its strict terms, the "absolute defense" statute does not apply to this malpractice claim. Even very conservative and insurance-oriented judge Richard Bandstra agreed with the ruling, although he disagreed with the other judges' analysis.