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§47.38 Sudden Emergency Doctrine

The Case: Olinger v. University Medical Center, No. M2006-02312-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 162535 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2008) perm. appeal denied (June 30, 2008).

The Basic Facts: "This medical malpractice action was filed by Katherine Deloriese Olinger and Perry Michael Hale ('Plaintiffs') after their son was born with brachial plexus palsy. Plaintiffs claim the injury occurred because the defendants failed to take the proper medical steps to resolve a delivery complication known as shoulder dystocia. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of all of the defendants. Plaintiffs appeal claiming the Trial Court erred when it gave a jury instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine …" 2008 WL 162535 at *1.

The Bottom Line:

  • "The recent case of White v. Premier Medical Group, No. M2006-01196-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 4207868 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 28, 2007) involved the propriety of a jury instruction in a medical malpractice case. In White, the defendants successfully sought to have the jury charged on the defense of superseding cause. Id. at *3. Following a jury verdict in favor of the defendants, the plaintiffs claimed on appeal that the trial court erred in giving that particular instruction. We ultimately concluded that the jury instruction was appropriate. In so doing we discussed the requisite amount of proof needed to support a jury instruction and the applicable standard of review. We stated:
    It is proper for a court to charge the law upon an issue of fact within the scope of the pleadings upon which there is evidence, which even though slight, is 'sufficient to sustain a verdict.' For the evidence to be 'sufficient to sustain a verdict,' there must be evidence which is 'material' to the issue."
    Id. at *2 (internal citations and footnote omitted).
  • "When determining whether there is material evidence sufficient to sustain a verdict, the appellate courts 'do not determine the credibility of witnesses or weigh evidence on appeal from a jury verdict.' Reynolds, 887 S.W.2d at 823. Instead, the appellate courts 'are limited to determining whether there is material evidence to support the jury's verdict.' Id. If we determine the record contains material evidence supporting the verdict, we are not to disturb the verdict. Id."
    "Accordingly, without judging the credibility of witnesses or weighing the evidence, we must determine whether there is any material evidence sufficient to sustain the defense of superseding cause. To make this determination, we must identify the superseding cause contended by Defendants and determine whether there is any material evidence in the record that pertains to each element of this defense.
    White, 2007 WL 4207868, at *4 (footnote omitted)." Id. at *3.
  • "Our Supreme Court explained the sudden emergency doctrine McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150 (Tenn. 1995) as follows:
    The sudden emergency doctrine, which has now been subsumed into Tennessee's comparative fault scheme, Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d 587, 592 (Tenn. 1995), recognizes that a person confronted with a sudden or unexpected emergency which calls for immediate action is not expected to exercise the same accuracy of judgment as one acting under normal circumstances who has time for reflection and thought before acting. See Young v. Clark, 814 P.2d 364, 365 (Colo. 1991); see also Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 196.

    The doctrine no longer constitutes a defense as a matter of law but, if at issue, must be considered as a factor in the total comparative fault analysis. Accordingly, the doctrine of sudden emergency does not negate defendant's liability in the case before us as a matter of law.
    McCall, 913 S.W.2d at 157 (footnote omitted)." Id.
  • "It is important to note that Plaintiffs challenge only whether the sudden emergency instruction should have been given in the first place. Plaintiffs do not claim that the instruction as given was legally deficient. The sudden emergency instruction given by the Trial Court in the present case was as follows:
    A physician/nurse who is faced with a sudden or unexpected emergency that calls for immediate action is not expected to use the same accuracy or judgment as a person acting under normal circumstances who has time to think and reflect before acting. A physician/nurse faced with a sudden emergency is required to act within the recognized standard of care applicable to that physician or nurse. A sudden emergency will not excuse the actions of a person whose own negligence created the emergency.

    If you find that there was a sudden emergency that was not caused by any fault of the persons whose actions you are judging, you must consider this factor in determining and comparing fault."
    Id. at *4.
  • "The defendants argue that the sudden emergency confronted by Dr. Lanning and the delivery room nurses was not the occurrence of shoulder dystocia, but the fact that the shoulder dystocia was not resolved after the typical steps used to resolve that complication failed." Id.
  • "Plaintiffs contend that as a trained physician, Dr. Lanning should have anticipated those initial steps not working and his then having to undertake additional maneuvers and, therefore, it was not a sudden emergency." Id. at *6.
  • "In the present case, the jury returned a general verdict for all of the defendants. We do not know if the jury actually found that there was a sudden emergency and the defendants acted appropriately in light of that sudden emergency, or whether the jury found there was no sudden emergency and the defendants' actions were nevertheless within the recognized standard of professional practice. The point being, the issue on appeal is not whether there actually was or was not a sudden emergency, only whether there was sufficient proof in the record to support the Trial Court's decision to so charge the jury. All of the medical proof at trial was that shoulder dystocia is a somewhat rare but known occurrence, and shoulder dystocia not being resolved by the McRoberts maneuver and suprapubic pressure is considerably more rare. Even Plaintiffs' expert witness testified that, on average, shoulder dystocia occurs in 3% of all deliveries, and 90% of the time it is resolved by the initial maneuvers. Thus, based on Plaintiffs' proof, a typical physician will encounter shoulder dystocia that is not relieved by the initial maneuvers approximately 0.3% of the time. Dr. Lanning testified that in his 21 years as an obstetrician, he delivered roughly 4,000 babies, he encountered shoulder dystocia 100 times, and the present case was the first time that it was not resolved with the initial maneuvers." Id. at *8.
  • "We agree with Plaintiffs' argument that because of a physician's training and background, the sudden emergency doctrine has a limited application in medical malpractice cases. Simply because there is a medical complication does not necessarily mean that there is a sudden emergency. We are not, however, willing to go as far as argued by Plaintiffs and hold that the sudden emergency doctrine never is applicable in a medical emergency situation. Having said that, we conclude that there was sufficient proof presented at trial that the circumstance underlying the sudden emergency doctrine, i.e., the existence of a sudden or unexpected emergency, was present in this case when there was material evidence presented to the jury that the shoulder dystocia did not resolve after application of the McRoberts maneuver and suprapubic pressure, something not seen or experienced by Dr. Lanning in his twenty-one years as an obstetrician delivering roughly 4,000 babies. We, therefore, find no error in the Trial Court's decision that there was sufficient proof presented at trial to justify charging the jury on sudden emergency so as to allow the jury to find whether there was or was not a sudden emergency in its comparative fault analysis." Id. at *9.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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