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Supreme Court of Missouri Holds Patient's Family Could Not Sue Physician for Wrongful Death, but Patient's Personal Representative Could Have Brought Action for Medical Negligence

Mickels, et al. v. Raman Danrad, M.D., 436 S.W.3d 327 (Mo.banc April 19, 2016) 

The Supreme Court of Missouri vacated a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a physician and remanded the case, because the allegations in the petition stated a cause of action for medical negligence that would have been actionable under § 537.020, RSMo (Missouri’s “survivorship” statute) if brought by the patient’s personal representative.

The deceased patient’s family members brought a wrongful death action against Dr. Danrad, alleging Dr. Danrad failed to timely diagnose a brain tumor that was both terminal and incurable.  After undergoing surgery, the patient died of the brain tumor on June 12, 2009, approximately four months after diagnosis.  The plaintiffs alleged, had Dr. Danrad timely diagnosed the tumor two months sooner, the patient would not have died on June 12, 2009.  The plaintiffs’ oncology expert testified at trial that the patient would have lived an additional six months on average had the tumor been diagnosed two months sooner.

Dr. Danrad moved for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs had not pleaded, and could not prove, facts showing that his alleged negligence resulted in the patient’s death, as a required by § 537.080 (Missouri’s wrongful death statute).  The trial court agreed, entering judgment dismissing the petition.  The plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri agreed that the patient’s death was not caused by Dr. Danrad’s negligence, and that the plaintiffs could not sue for wrongful death under § 537.080. After reviewing cases from several state supreme courts outside of Missouri, the Court found that every court to address the issue reached the same conclusion.

Despite finding the plaintiffs could not maintain an action for wrongful death, the Court found that Dr. Danrad’s alleged negligence may have injured the patient, and thus the alleged negligence was actionable under § 537.020 (Missouri’s “survivorship” statute).  This statute provides that causes of action, other than those resulting in death, “survive” the decedent’s demise, and may be brought by the decedent’s personal representative.  This is not to be confused with a claim for “lost chance of survival”, which the Court found did not apply because all parties conceded the patient would not have survived the brain tumor regardless of Dr. Danrad’s alleged negligent failure to timely diagnose.

In reaching its holding, the Court stated that its approach “keeps the question of the time and date of the decedent’s death out of the causation analysis, and confines it to the damages analysis where it belongs.”  The Court vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case.

In his dissent, Judge Richard Teitelman disagreed with the concept that a terminally ill person can never suffer a wrongful death.  He found this concept inconsistent with the purpose of the wrongful death statute, which is to provide compensation to bereaved plaintiffs for their loss, ensure that tortfeasors pay for the consequences of their actions, and deter negligent acts that may lead to death.  He found the result of the majority’s opinion is to effectively immunize tortfeasors from wrongful death liability when they kill the terminally ill.  Judge Teitelman stated: “There is nothing in the plain language of the wrongful death statute that compels the conclusion that a physician who negligently causes the premature death of a patient is immunized from wrongful death liability because, by a stroke of perverse luck, the patient also suffers from a terminal illness.”  Judge Teitleman also disagreed with the majority opinion’s reliance on cases from the states of Florida, Ohio and Iowa that were decided 30-83 years earlier.

This case provides potentially important considerations for medical negligence cases involving an alleged failure to timely diagnose disease in the terminally ill.  The distinction between remedies (wrongful death statute vs. survivorship statute) is important because there are significant differences between the two in terms of who may sue, the applicable statute of limitations, the damages available, and possibly other considerations as well.