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Therapist's failure to secure elderly stroke patient is outside the understanding of lay persons

Loretta Groesbeck, an 86 year-old stroke victim, fell while being evaluated by a physical therapist in the Henry Ford Health System.  Groesbeck had been too fatigued and dizzy when the Henry Ford employee first attempted to evaluate her, so the employee returned later in the afternoon.  When the therapist attempted a gait assessment with a gait belt and pyramid walker, Loretta collapsed and fell, striking her head.

Her family sued to hold Henry Ford accountable for Loretta's decline in condition that resulted from striking her head.  The family alleged medical malpractice, but also alleged that it was simply ordinary negligence for the therapist to fail to adequately secure a dependent person with known ambulation problems.  The family also alleged that since the therapist was "controlling" Loretta's support, the burden should be upon her to prove that she was not negligent in allowing Loretta to fall (called "res ipsa loquitur").  The trial judge agreed that the family could have a trial on ordinary negligence but refused to shift the burden of proof.  The Defendants appealed the former ruling.

Two Republican members of the three judge Court of Appeals panel overturned the lower court's decision on "ordinary" negligence.  Judges Kirsten Kelly and Joel Hoekstra deemed it unreasonable to expect that ordinary persons could evaluate whether the Therapist was negligent.  The dissenting judge pointed to earlier Michigan Supreme Court rulings which have explicitly noted that just engaging in medical care does not make every action or decision an exercise of medical judgment.

The trial judge had ruled that "if you are helping hundred four pound, 86 year-old woman, experiencing dizzy spells...walk, you should hold on carefully or get further assistance [and this] is within the realm of common knowledge and experience."  The dissenting judge and Supreme Court precedent would agree that merely supporting a dependent person adequately is a question of ordinary negligence, however, the majority of the panel equated the level of support provided with the decision to engage in gait training and deemed it a matter of professional judgment.

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