www.rissman.com
TAMPA COMMONS
ONE NORTH DALE MABRY HIGHWAY
11TH FLOOR
TAMPA, FLORIDA 33609
TELEPHONE (813) 221-3114
TELECOPIER (813) 221-3033
TAMPA@RISSMAN.COM
201 EAST PINE STREET
15TH FLOOR
P.O. BOX 4940
ORLANDO, FLORIDA 32802-4940
TELEPHONE (407) 839-0120
TELECOPIER (407) 841-9726
ORLANDO@RISSMAN.COM
709 SEBASTIAN BOULEVARD
SUITE B
SEBASTIAN, FLORIDA 32958
TELEPHONE (772) 228-3228
TELECOPIER (772) 228-3229
SEBASTIAN@RISSMAN.COM

 

 

In Southern Baptist Hospital v. Johnston, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1101d (Fla. 1st DCA May 17, 2013), the 1st DCA affirmed an Administrative Law Judge's finding that the minor claimant had not suffered a "birth related neurological injury" as defined by the NICA statutes; therefore, NICA immunity did not apply to the claim against the defendant hospital. The minor claimant and her parents were instead free to sue the defendant hospital in civil court for personal injuries sustained by the minor.

The 1st DCA did not issue an opinion in support of its per curiam opinion; however, the facts of the case were set forth in a "special" concurring opinion written by Judge Makar.

According to the concurring opinion, the evidence before the ALJ at trial was that the minor claimant had potentially long-term and significant mental impairments with no certainty of improvement. The dispute centered on whether the impairments were "permanent" and "substantial" as required by the NICA statutes. The claimants and NICA contended that the child did not have permanent and substantial mental impairments while the hospital contended that she did.

The hospital's pediatric neurology expert issued two reports, both of which had the same date. The first report, which was admitted into evidence by stipulation, was equivocal on whether the child's mental impairments were permanent and substantial; the second report concluded that they were. The second report was much more detailed, noting that the child exhibited "no communication skills" and "little if any comprehension, indicating the degree of her mental impairment." The ALJ admitted the second report into evidence at trial, but later deemed it hearsay and did not consider it as part of the findings of fact.

The ALJ's "exclusion" of the second report appears to have been the major issue in the hospital's appeal. Because the 1st DCA affirmed the ALJ's decision, it clearly rejected the hospital's argument. Based on Judge Makar's concurring opinion, the 1st DCA must have ruled that the ALJ had not abused its discretion in "excluding" the second report from its findings of fact. Judge Makar suggested, though, that the better course may have been for the ALJ to have admitted the second report for all purposes and then given that report the appropriate evidentiary weight in its findings of fact.

Judge Makar also wrote that even if the second report had been admitted for all purposes, the 1st DCA would still have affirmed the ALJ's decision because there was other competent evidence to support the ALJ's findings that the child did not have a permanent and substantial mental impairment and that the second report did not clearly overcome that evidence. Judge Makar pointed out that even when the appellate court does not agree with the fact finder's decision, it is generally improper for the appellate court to second guess the fact finder's determinations to the contrary.




This summary was prepared by Skip Jewett of our firm.


Skip Jewett

 

 

38 Fla. L. Weekly D1101d

 

Administrative law -- Medical malpractice -- Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Plan -- Eligibility for NICA plan benefits -- Permanent and substantial mental impairment -- Evidence

SOUTHERN BAPTIST HOSPITAL OF FLORIDA, INC., d/b/a BAPTIST MEDICAL CENTER, Appellant, v. MICHELLE and CHRIS JOHNSTON, as parents and natural guardians of EMMA JOHNSTON, a minor, and FLORIDA BIRTH-RELATED NEUROLOGICAL INJURY COMPENSATION ASSOCIATION, Appellees. 1st District. Case No. 1D12-2658. Opinion filed May 17, 2013. An appeal from an order of the Division of Administrative Hearings. Counsel: Susan L. Kelsey of Kelsey Appellate Law Firm, P.A., Tallahassee; William E. Kuntz, Earl E. Googe, Jr., and Megan R. Heiden of Smith Hulsey & Busey, Jacksonville, for Appellant. Ronald S. Gilbert of Colling, Gilbert, Wright & Carter, LLC, Orlando; Rebecca Bowen Creed of Creed & Gowdy, P.A., Jacksonville, for Michelle and Chris Johnston; J. Stephen Menton and Stephen A. Ecenia of Rutledge Ecenia, P.A., Tallahassee; Michael A. Kundid and Theodore R. Doran of Doran, Sims, Wolfe & Kundid, Daytona Beach, for Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association.

ON MOTION FOR REHEARING
AND FOR WRITTEN OPINION

(PER CURIAM.) We deny Appellant's motion for rehearing and request for written opinion, but we sua sponte withdraw our previous per curiam opinion dated March 19, 2013, and substitute the following in its place.

AFFIRMED. (LEWIS and THOMAS, JJ., CONCUR; MAKAR, J., SPECIALLY CONCURRING.)

__________________

(MAKAR, J., specially concurring.) This case is unusual, in part, because of the incentives established under the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association ("NICA") statute, sections 766.301-316, Florida Statutes, which sets forth an administrative process for infants who sustain severe birth-related neurological injuries to establish their eligibility for NICA plan benefits. Emma Johnston suffered permanent and substantial physical impairments arising from her birth in 2007. To be eligible for statutory benefits under NICA, Emma -- through her parents -- need only show in the administrative hearing below that she also suffered a permanent and substantial mental impairment, all other pre-requisites having been established.

Ordinarily, the incentive under these circumstances would be for Emma's parents to be supportive of their daughter's eligibility for the statutory benefits, which would be provided with certainty for life without the risk inherent in bringing a medical malpractice case, which the NICA no-fault remedy displaces. Her parents (and NICA), however, opposed the efforts of intervenor Baptist Medical Center to establish that Emma's mental impairments were both permanent and severe as the statute requires. One reason for the counter-intuitive behavior of the parties is reflected in a recent comprehensive study of Florida's NICA system in conjunction with a similar program in Virginia. The study stated:

[I]n Florida, there has been a strong incentive to escape NICA's jurisdiction and pursue remedies in the tort system for claims that families and their attorneys believe have strong chances of success as negligence actions. No cap on malpractice awards existed there until 2003, when a complicated sliding scale for non-economic damages was introduced. Thus, in Florida, considerably larger awards have been potentially available from juries in birth-related injury litigation. How the sliding scale will impact claiming behavior under NICA is unclear at this stage.

Gil Siegal, Michelle M. Mello & David M. Studdert, Adjudicating Severe Birth Injury Claims in Florida and Virginia: The Experience of a Landmark Experiment in Personal Injury Compensation, 34 Am. J.L. & Med. 493, 499 (2008) (footnote omitted).

In essence, a hospital or physician may be trying to push an injured child into the NICA program (to avoid a potential lawsuit) while the child's parents are opposing that effort (to pursue a tort claim against the hospital or physician); indeed, a recent article provides twelve ways for potential claimants to avoid the NICA plan and pursue claims in circuit court. See Jon Gilbert, Twelve Ways to Avoid a Determination of NICA Compensability in a Medical Malpractice Case, 85 Fla. B.J. 42 (Dec. 2011) (noting that "statutorily capped remedies provided by NICA are significant limitations compared to the potential damages at issue in circuit court" making it "important to verify that each case abated to NICA is appropriately before the ALJ."). NICA is the gatekeeper stuck in the middle, attempting to meet its statutory purpose of providing benefits to a limited class of the most severely injured infants while concurrently maintaining the plan's fiscal stability.

Given the competing incentives and dynamics, it is unsurprising that parties may seem to have lined up on the wrong sides of the playing field. That is what happened here, where the sole issue on appeal is whether the hospital's evidence demonstrated that Emma's mental impairments were permanent and substantial; the hospital says they were, the parents and NICA say they were not.

How to prove or disprove that these types of impairments exist in an infant and that they are permanent and substantial (versus some lesser standard such as long-lasting and significant), involves medical prognostications by experts who necessarily have only a temporally short medical history of the infant and a seemingly vast horizon of potential future outcomes. This type of assessment, if based on a one-time medical examination of the infant, is fraught with predictive perils. As the study stated:

Further complicating matters, assessments of both physical and mental disability call for prognosis of the child's future condition and needs, an exercise that can be quite speculative and uncertain. The term "permanent" suggests that the disability is static over time, but some young children may improve physically and/or mentally as they develop. This possibility raises the question of whether to perform a reevaluation at a later time, as is routinely done in workers' compensation, or to defer the evaluation for a year.

Siegel et al., supra, at 512 (footnote omitted). Adding more uncertainty to the dynamics of proof, the report notes that a "rigid adherence to a scientific standard of proof" in the administrative process could "reduce eligible claims quite dramatically, and seriously undermine the programs' ability to meet their objective of preempting tort claims." Id. at 506. In other words, replicating tort standards of proof in the administrative forum could simply result in claimants preferring the tort system (particularly those with high-valued claims), which would defeat the "foundational objectives" of the program, a primary one of which is to "help stabilize the malpractice litigation environment . . . by effectively wresting disputes over severe birth-related neurological injury, traditionally a tinderbox for medico-legal activity, from the courts." Id. The report provides insights into how the Florida NICA program is structured and how it might be improved, but the question in this appeal is one of law and not of legislative policy.

Turning to the evidence admitted at trial, it showed generally that Emma has potentially long-term and significant mental impairments with no certainty of improvements; the gravity of her impairments is clearly momentous however the record is viewed. The dispute, however, centered on whether the impairments are "permanent" and "substantial," which is why the hospital sought to admit as substantive evidence the contested second report of Dr. Trevor Resnick, a pediatric neurologist and the only physician in the proceeding who actually examined Emma (he did an independent medical examination when she was 3 ½ years old). Dr. Resnick's first report, which was admitted in evidence by stipulation, was less than unequivocal on whether Emma's mental impairments were permanent and substantial, but his second concluded they were; the second report was much more detailed, noting that Emma exhibits "no communication skills" and "little if any comprehension, indicating the degree of her mental impairment." The parents sought to undermine Dr. Resnick's first report because he initially left open the question of Emma's potential for progress; this reticence is less a reflection on his predictive ability and more about the enormous grey area of uncertainty any expert would face in making a one-time, conclusive prognosis at Emma's tender age. As to this second report (which was admitted over objection but deemed hearsay and not used for fact-finding purposes), it appears that Emma's attorneys knew about it in advance of the hearing, as they acknowledged that both the first and second reports had identical dates, which caused confusion for obvious reasons. But there is enough other confusion surrounding the attempted use of the second report as substantive evidence to render the administrative law judge's decision to consider it hearsay a judgment call measured by the abuse of discretion standard. Maddox v. Dept. of Prof. Reg., 592 So. 2d 717, 719 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991) (holding that hearing officer's exclusion of evidence not an abuse of discretion). The better course may have been to admit the second report for all purposes, and give it the weight the administrative law judge felt it deserved; but the failure to do so, while a close call, is not reversible error under the standard by which this Court is bound.

Even if the disputed report was available for fact-finding purposes, it would ultimately fall upon the shoulders of the administrative law judge to decide whether the statutory requirement of a permanent and substantial mental impairment was met. This again is a discretionary judgment call in which the hospital's evidence could be accepted or rejected by the administrative law judge, a determination that is deemed "conclusive and binding as to all questions of fact." § 766. 311(1), Fla. Stat. While the evidentiary scales may appear from the appellate perch to tip in favor of one party versus another, it is generally improper to second-guess the fact-finder's determinations to the contrary. Wallace Corp. v. City of Miami Beach, 793 So. 2d 1134, 1140 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001). Admittedly, the administrative law judge all but wiped the evidentiary slate clean by relegating the second report to hearsay status, nullifying much of the hospital's case. And referring to the prefatory language in the preamble of the NICA statute to conclude that a "substantial" impairment is akin to a "catastrophic" injury versus merely a "mild" or "moderate" one did not help matters; in doing so, the administrative law judge made this case an even closer call on appeal. But even if the second report had been considered for fact finding purposes, it is not clear from the record that the battle would have ended any differently. See § 59.041, Fla. Stat. (2012).




* * *