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Needle stick suit: judgment for RN & employer upheld.

CASE ON POINT: Scott v. Retz, 49A. 05-0904-CV-192 (11/10/2009)-IN

CASE FACTS: George Scott, a Clarian Health Partner, Inc., (Clarian) safety and security investigator, was stuck by a used uncapped needle while investigating a missing narcotics complaint at Indiana University Hospital, which was operated by Clarian. Scott sued Malissa Retz, a Registered Nurse, for negligence and Indiana University (IU), Retz's employer, under the theory of Respondeat Superior, and negligent retention and supervision of the nurse. In 2007, Retz was the subject of disciplinary action by the Indiana State Board of Nursing (Board). On May 16, 2007, she admitted that when renewing her nursing license she falsely stated, under penalty of perjury, that she had not been terminated from professional employment when, in fact, she had been terminated from previous employment following an incident in which she improperly possessed morphine tablets while at work. For four to six weeks prior to May 31, 2007, the nurse had been injecting herself with Demerol, improperly accessed through her position with IU. On May 30, 2007, Bernard Harris, a Clarian safety and security investigator, began investigating whether Nurse Retz was improperly diverting narcotics from the hospital. Harris met with Retz's supervisor, Nurse Sherry Wilson. Wilson told Retz about the investigation. Wilson and Nurse Laurie Trevino attempted to escort Retz for drug testing, but Retz left work without authorization and could not be located. Wilson, concerned for Retz's safety, contacted local police to ensure that Nurse Retz arrived home safely. On May 31, 2007, Retz reported for work. She stole morphine from an AccuDose room at the hospital, injected herself with the morphine, and disposed of the used, uncapped needles, syringes, and empty vials in a trash container in a women's rest room at the hospital. Retz confessed this apparent suicide attempt to Trevino and Wilson. Wilson escorted Retz to the hospital's ED. Retz told Wilson and others the used needles, syringes, and empty vials were still in the women's rest room trash can. The used, uncapped needles ended up in a brown paper bag that was delivered to the ED and given to the emergency department physician attending Retz. The physician "put the bag to the side in the [ED]." When Wilson left the ED the bag "was still in the examination room where Ms. Retz was." Ultimately, George Scott took custody of the bag and was stuck by a needle inside the bag when he picked the bag up to read a note on it. When he opened the bag he found four or five uncapped needles. Scott sued Retz and IU alleging Retz's liability for negligence and IU's liability as her employer. The trial court granted summary judgment for Retz and IU. Scott appealed.

COURT'S OPINION: The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed the judgment of the trial court. The court held, inter alia, that viewing the evidence most favorably to Scott, as the nonmovant on the defendants' motion for summary judgment, Scott failed to prove that the actions of either Nurse Retz or UI were the proximate cause of Scott's alleged injuries. Accordingly, the court held that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Nurse Retz and IU on all of Scott's alleged claims.

LEGAL COMMENTARY: Initially, the court addressed question of general principles of causation which are necessary for a plaintiff to prevail in such cases. In general, a defendant's act is a proximate cause of an injury if the injury "is the natural and probable consequence of the act and should have been reasonably foreseen and anticipated in light of the circumstances." However, under the doctrine of superseding causation, "a chain of causation may be broken if an independent agency intervenes between the defendant's negligence and the resulting injury." The very nature of Scott's job as an investigator, looking for exactly what he should have reasonably expected to have found, appears to have been the intervening cause of which the court spoke. Thus, since the court concluded that notwithstanding Nurse Retz's actions, the actions of George Scott were an intervening cause. Nurse Retz directed responsible authorities to the exact location where the uncapped needles and syringes could be found. The fact is that they were found, collected, and bagged without incident. They were then delivered to the ED physician after which they were in the custody and control of Clarian's own employees who notified their superiors, who, in turn, sent Scott to pick up the bagged needles, which by then had been sent to the Clarian Security Center where Scott picked up the bag and got stuck by a needle. Again, the court was convinced that this was proof positive that a superseding intervening cause led to Scott's getting stuck by the needle. Lastly, since UI's liability, if any, had been predicated upon the doctrine of Respondeat Superior, the court concluded that since Scott had failed to meet the burden of proof required to withstand a motion for summary judgment by Nurse Retz, it certainly could not ascribe any liability to UI since the only possible way UI could be liable was as the employer of Nurse Retz under the doctrine of Respondeat Superior. Once again, the actions of Clarian and its employees acts, or failure to act responsibly, was found to be a superseding and intervening cause, which precluded any claim for liability against either Nurse Retz or UI.

Meet the Editor & Publisher: A. David Tammelleo, JD, is a nationally recognized authority on health care law. Practicing law for over 40 years, he concentrates in health care law with the Rhode Island firm of A. David Tammelleo & Associates. He has presented seminars on medical, nursing and hospital law throughout the United States. In addition to his writings as Editor of Medical Law's. Nursing Law's & Hospital Law's Regan Reports, his legal articles have been published in the most prestigious health law journals. A prolific writer, his thousands of articles, as well as his achievements as an attorney and lecturer, have won him recognition in Martindale-Hubbell's Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers, Marquis Who's Who in American Law, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World.
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Title Annotation:Nursing Law Case on Point
Author:Tammelleo, A. David
Publication:Nursing Law's Regan Report
Article Type:Case overview
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Words:1022
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