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Punitive damages not allowed without prior hearing.

CASE ON POINT: Little Company of Mary Hospital v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, (04/12/2008) -CA

ISSUE: Exemplary or punitive damages are more common today than ever before. Cases involving "ordinary" negligence and/or medical malpractice are not usually ones in which punitive damages are even considered. However, when negligence and/or medical malpractice, including cases of elder abuse, are so clearly apart from acts of simple negligence, malpractice or failure to render appropriate care, so that they may be characterized as wilful, wanton, reckless and/or so egregious that they involve conduct which is shocking and so inconsistent with, and diametrically opposed to, basic standards, they may justify the award of exemplary or punitive damages in addition to actual damages awarded by a judge or jury. The courts in this California case were confronted with a case in which a religious, non profit hospital sought to invoke the requirements, which must be met for pursuing such institutions for punitive damages.

CASE FACTS: Francisco Martin filed suit against Little Company of Mary Hospital for elder abuse and wrongful death after his mother, Juilia Gomez, died while in the care and custody of the hospital. Martin's complaint sought punitive damages in connection with the claim for elder abuse. The hospital, owned and operated by Providence Health System-Southern California, a tax-exempt religious corporation, moved to strike the plaintiff's punitive damage claim, invoking the protections of the applicable sections of California law. The hospital argued that the plaintiff was precluded from seeking punitive damages unless, the grounds for such damages were proven in a separate hearing. The plaintiff denied that it was necessary to submit to a special hearing on punitive damages since punitive damage claims for elder abuse were not subject to the requirement of a pretrial showing of merit. The trial court, while acknowledging the applicable law cited by the hospital ruled that the rationale standard contained in precedent excluded elder abuse-related punitive damage claims against religious organizations. Accordingly, the trial court denied the hospital's motion to strike the elder abuse-related punitive damage claim in the plaintiff's suit. The hospital petitioned the Court of Appeals of California for a writ of mandate compelling the trial court to vacate its order denying the motion to strike the punitive damage claim in the plaintiff's complaint and enter a new order granting the hospital's motion.

COURT'S OPINION: The Court of Appeals of California Reversed the award of punitive damages against the hospital. The court held, inter alia, that no claim for punitive damages may be made in any action against a religious corporation unless the trial court first concludes that the plaintiff has evidence that "substantiates that [he or she] will meet the clear and convincing standard of proof" for punitive damages under applicable law. A similar law protects health care providers against claims for punitive damages in any action "arising out of [their] professional negligence" unless the trial court finds in a separate pretrial proceeding the plaintiff has established a "substantial probability" he or she will prevail on the claim.

LEGAL COMMENTARY: Whether the pretrial requirements invoked by the hospital apply in elder abuse cases brought against a religious organization was a question of law subject to de novo review. The court, after reviewing the legislative history involved, concluded that claims for exemplary damages based on elder abuse were not subject the requirements in question However, the court noted that the law specifically provides: "No claim for punitive or exemplary damages against a religious corporation or religious corporation sole {sic} shall be included in a complaint or other pleading unless the court enters an order allowing an amended pleading that includes a claim for punitive or exemplary damages to be filed." The court concluded that a trial court may allow the filing of an amended pleading claiming punitive or exemplary damages on a motion by the party seeking the amended pleading and upon a finding, on the basis of the supporting and opposing affidavits prescribed, that the plaintiff has established evidence which substantiates that the plaintiff will meet the clear an convincing standard of proof required. The court observed that contrary to the plaintiff's contention, the threshold pleading requirement neither restricts the heightened penalties authorized under the Elder Abuse Act nor increases the plaintiff's burden of proof It simply mandates a prima facie showing of merit supporting allegations of recklessness, oppression or fraud earlier in the proceedings, rather than later. The court concluded that nothing in the application of the requirements in question to religious health care providers in elder abuse suits dilutes the possibility of civil penalties, when appropriate.

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 die 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 in the World.
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Title Annotation:Hospital Law Case of the Month
Author:Tammelleo, A. David
Publication:Hospital Law's Regan Report
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Previous Article:Court rules trial court erred in denying hospital's motion.
Next Article:MI: Pt. claims suit v. hospital for 'negligence': court ruled suit was for 'medical malpractice'.

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