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Malpractice claim against Northern Michigan Hospital dismissed on a technicality

The Estate of Kerin LaJoice sued Northern Michigan Hospital and a number of doctors for malpractice.  According to the lawsuit, La Joice was transferred from Mackinaw Straits Hospital to NMH on April 16 with a diagnosis of acute left pneumonitis and possible sepsis.  Ms. La Joice's Estate (she was the mother of two) claimed that she was negligently discharged on May 4, despite continuing symptoms, and died as a result. 

The family's suit claimed that Mrs. LaJoice contacted her doctor's office on May 7, claiming that she was coughing up blood, but was told that she could wait until her next office visit for examination.  Apparently she called back on May 9 and was given permission to visit the doctor's office in Mackinaw Straits Hospital, where she was x-rayed and significant abnormal findings were identified.  Her doctor still sent her home  Hours later, an ambulance was called and she was transported to the hospital once again.  Diagnosed with "acute hemoptysis" with a plan to "r/o [rule out] sepsis", she was again admitted to the hospital, however, she suffered cardiopulmonary arrest and brain death shortly after admission. 

The Estate's attorneys filed a timely Notice of Intent which alleged, among other claims, that the dead woman's treaters were negligent in failing to insert a particular size drainage device to treat her and in failing to regularly and adequately monitor her condition.  The family also argued that the treaters failed to regularly assess the quality and quantity of her chest tube drainage.  They maintained that the failure to comply with the standard of care in treating LaJoice caused her death.   The Court of Appeals opinion states that her family filed supporting Affidavits of Merit signed by a surgeon board-certified in cardiothoracic surgery and by a physician who was board-certified in Internal Medicine and Pulmonology.

The Court held that the allegations in the Estate's Notice of Intent were too vague and  non-specific, that they should have been particularized as to each Defendant; that they were "conclusory" and did not provide the Defendants with reasonable notice of the claims against them.  As a result, the Judges of the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning that the dismissal is final and the case cannot be re-filed.  The Court also held that the trial court properly denied the Estate the right to amend the deficient notice, despite the statute (MCL 600.2301) which allows the court to amend "any process, pleading, or proceeding." 

The Court of Appeals relied upon an "Engler Majority" Supreme Court holding that if a notice of intent is deficient, the action has "never been filed", because filing requires a valid notice of intent.  Therefore, the entire case is a "fiction" and there are no pleadings to amend.  Critics have decried this ruling as political activism and inconsistent with pre-existing rules governing Michigan legal pleadings.

As a result of this series of technical holdings, the statutory and court rule policy in favor of liberal amendment of pleadings is invalidated with regard to the notice of intent.  In essence, unlike other legal documents, this first document drafted by the injured victim, which is drawn up before the victim has an opportunity to engage in discovery, cannot contain a flaw in explaining to the medically-trained expert Defendants where the treatment was believed to be deficient.  All other documents filed by the parties are eligible for amendment if there is a mistake or deficiency.  Were the doctors who treated Ms. LaJoice negligent?  We'll never know because her allegations will never have an open hearing.  Despite the Affidavits of Merit, they were dismissed on a technicality.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
Toll Free: 1-800-678-1307
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