VA Not Liable for Patient Injured During Surgery

In common law there is a rule known as res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” This rule basically allows a judge or jury to infer a defendant’s negligence from an event, even when the plaintiff can not provide more direct evidence that the defendant did something wrong. Georgia courts have taken a narrow view of res ipsa loquitur arguments in modern times, with the Georgia Court of Appeals noting it should only “be applied with caution and only in extreme cases.”

Huntoon v. United States

Even in cases in which a court does apply res ipsa loquitur, that is not always a guarantee that a plaintiff will recover actual damages. Consider this recent decision by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Huntoon v. United States. In this case, the plaintiff received surgery at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Florida. According to the plaintiff, when he came out from under anesthesia, he “noticed swelling and severe pain in his right arm.” This was later diagnosed as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

The plaintiff sued the federal government, alleging the VA’s negligence in performing the surgery caused his CRPS. Of course, the plaintiff was unconscious during the surgery itself and did not personally witness any negligence. He therefore argued that res ipsa loquitur applied–after all, how else could he have been injured except by surgical negligence? The government argued the rule did not apply to this case.

The trial judge disagreed, noting this case was “on the margins” of what was allowed under res ipsa loquitur. Therefore the court applies a “presumption” of negligence against the government. The court then held a bench trial, after which the judge determined that the government managed to rebut the presumption of negligence. Specifically, the government introduced evidence that led the judge to conclude that it was the surgeons–who were independent contractors–and not VA hospital staff whose negligence likely caused the plaintiff’s arm injuries. Since the government is only liable under federal law for injuries caused by its own employees’ negligence, the court entered judgment in favor of the defense.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision. The plaintiff maintained the trial judge’s ruling was improper because it relied “solely on speculation” from a government witness that the surgeons caused the injury. In effect, the plaintiff maintained that since res ipsa loquitur applied to this case, he should prevail if any “doubt remains as to the cause of his injury.” The 11th Circuit disagreed with this approach. It noted there were “two categories” of actors here–government employees and independent contractor surgeons–who could have caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The trial court was entitled to make factual findings as to which category was negligent. Indeed, the appeals court noted the plaintiff failed to “raise any specific issue” with respect to the trial court’s factual findings and there was no reason to believe “that any of these findings are incorrect.” The judgment therefore stood.

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