By Taylor Richards, Garrison Law Group PLLC
The Medical Malpractice Group offers the following updates on several issues that are significant to our members: the upcoming lifting of the COVID-19 State of Emergency and its impact on application of immunities, tips on trying cases during a pandemic, and recent appellate decisions.
COVID-19 State of Emergency To Be Lifted August 15
Governor Roy Cooper recently announced that North Carolina’s State of Emergency Order—originally issued on March 10, 2020—will be lifted on August 15, 2022. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article263365608.html. Termination of the Order will have a significant impact on application of COVID-19 immunities enacted by our legislature, as discussed in an outstanding article by Christopher G. Smith, James C. Wrenn Jr., and David Ortiz: https://www.smithlaw.com/resources-publications-1937. As detailed in that article, immunity for negligent transmission of COVID-19 will essentially continue for an additional 180 days, but the temporary immunity for civil liability (which provided “broad protection against most ordinary negligence”) established by SB 704 will end on August 15, 2022. https://www.smithlaw.com/resources-publications-1937.
Tips on Trying Cases During a Pandemic
The Medical Malpractice breakout session at the NCADA Annual Meeting in June featured an outstanding panel discussion with tips on trying cases during the pandemic. Our esteemed panelists were Chip Holmes, Jerry Allen, Pat Meacham, and Barrett Johnson.
The panelists agreed that jury selection has been greatly affected by the pandemic. One panelist realized how much he relies on facial expressions during voir dire, finding that it was quite difficult due to masking. Masking procedures have varied from county to county. Some courtrooms are now “back to normal” in the sense that jurors are not required to be masked, and courtroom logistics are back to pre-pandemic status. Other courtrooms may still require masks. Some judges allow masked jurors or witnesses to pull their masks down when they are testifying.
Discussion of COVID-19 issues during voir dire also varies. One panelist had opposing counsel file a motion in limine seeking to prevent any discussion of COVID-19, and that motion was granted. In contrast, in other cases, counsel directly asked jurors how the pandemic has impacted them and their families. A member of the panel found that due to the challenges of a COVID courtroom, voir dire would take longer because of counsel digging deeper during questioning.
One particularly unpleasant scenario involves what to do if a juror tests positive for COVID-19 during trial. One panelist asked the judge to continue the trial to another date to maintain the current jury. That request was denied. As with the pandemic itself the logistics and practice of trying cases is constantly evolving. However, the panel provided important tips and tricks that will not only be instructive to our practice in COVID-19 courtrooms, but also will help serve our clients in a “normal” courtroom setting.
Recent Medical Malpractice Appellate Decisions
At the Annual Meeting in June, Leslie Packer provided an extensive update on recent decisions. The excellent manuscript authored by her and Dixie Wells is here. (“Wells & Packer”). Three cases of the cases discussed in their paper are of particular interest to the Medical Malpractice Group: (1) Blue v. Bhiro, 871 S.E.2d 691, 2022-NCSC-45 (N.C. 2022); (2) Bryant v. Wake Forest Univ. Baptist Med. Ctr., 870 S.E.2d 269, 2022-NCCOA-89 (N.C. App. 2022); and (3) Hall v. Wilmington Health, PLLC, 2022-NCCOA-204 (N.C. App. 2022).
The Hall case addressed a deponent’s right to have counsel physically present while testifying, even in a pandemic setting. Specifically, “the court of appeals considered whether a trial court’s order prohibiting a medical center’s counsel from being physically present with the center’s own witness during remote depositions violated the center’s constitutional right to due process.” (Wells & Packer, p. 64). The Court reversed and remanded, and Chief Judge Stroud wrote for the majority. The Court held that “[t]his wholesale ban on personal attendance of Defendant’s counsel at depositions of its own employees and witnesses presented the constitutional issue Defendant asserts in this appeal and was not supported by existing law, emergency orders or evidence. … The trial court’s order violated Defendant’s constitutional right by prohibiting counsel from being physically present at depositions of its own employees and witnesses.” Hall at ¶3.
The Bryant case addressed a variety of issues, including whether an implanted device should be considered a “foreign object” under North Carolina law. Procedurally, the Court of Appeals in Bryant “considered whether a doctor had sufficiently shown an absence of material fact necessary to receive summary judgment on his former patient’s claims against him for actual and constructive fraud, res ipsa loquitur, breach of fiduciary duty, and medical malpractice. (Wells & Packer, p. 86). Plaintiff alleged that a “Gore-Tex barrier” that the defendant implanted years ago caused her infertility. Bryant at ¶6. ¶23. Regarding the actual fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and constructive fraud claims the court held the Defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. at ¶14, 23. The Court “agree[d] with the trial court that res ipsa loquitor cannot apply because a layperson, without the assistance of expert testimony, could not infer negligence from the facts of this case based on common knowledge and ordinary human experience.” Id. at ¶27. The Court also addressed whether the Gore-Tex barrier had a therapeutic purpose and was not a “foreign object,” which would trigger the 10-year statute of limitations. The Court found that the Gore-Tex barrier had a therapeutic purpose or effect, relying on the trial court finding: “’Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s experts agree that Gore-Tex can be properly used as an adhesion barrier to prevent pelvic adhesion formation and that such a use is therapeutic.’” Thus, affirming the trial court’s application of the 4-year statute of limitations. Id. at ¶30. Regarding the punitive damages claim the court held “because we hold that the trial court properly granted summary judgment on each of Plaintiff’s claims above, Plaintiff has no independent basis for punitive damages and this claim necessarily fails.” Id. at ¶ 43.Finally, in the Blue case, the North Carolina Supreme Court “considered whether inclusion of additional facts not in the pleadings converted a trial court’s order on a Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgement under Rule 56.” (Wells & Packer, p. 84). The Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that “the trial court did not consider matters outside the pleading and thus was not required to convert the motion.” Blue at ¶ 1. In Blue, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants “were negligent by failing to provide follow-up care after learning the results of the 24 January 2012 PSA test and failing to diagnose plaintiff with prostate cancer.” Id. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not expressly exclude facts in the parties’ memoranda and arguments (facts that were not in the Complaint), so the trial court “’considered matters beyond the pleading,’” which converted the motion to dismiss to a summary judgment motion. Id. at ¶6. The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the trial court’s order did not mention any additional documents outside the parties’ memorandums. The defendants’ memorandum “included the pleadings, a statute, and case law as exhibits, but did not include any evidentiary materials” and the plaintiff “did not include any exhibits with his memorandum.” Id. at ¶13. Further, plaintiff’s counsel’s factual assertions in his memorandum and oral arguments were “not evidence and thus are not matters outside the pleading.”