Stuart v. Hertz Corporation – Florida Supreme Court Finds Original Wrongdoer Liable for Subsequent Medical Malpractice

law books.jpgIn Stuart v. Hertz Corporation, 351 So.2d 703 (Fla. 1977), the Florida Supreme Court decided that the Hertz Corporation, whose vehicle injured a woman in an accident, was liable for the injuries she sustained from medical negligence while receiving care for her original injuries, and that Hertz could not bring the doctor into the case to make him pay for the damage he caused.

The woman sued Hertz. Hertz, in turn, filed a third party complaint against the doctor, Stuart, seeking indemnification, i.e., that the doctor pay for the damage he caused. The woman’s motion to dismiss the third party complaint was denied, and the trial court’s order was affirmed on appeal in the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The Florida Supreme Court reversed.

The issue was framed by the Supreme Court as follows: Therefore, the issue before us is simply whether or not an active tortfeasor in an automobile accident may bring a third party action for indemnity against a physician for damages directly attributable to malpractice which aggravated the plaintiff’s injuries.

Although some lawyers think that the Hertz case set the standard in Florida for defendants being responsible for subsequent injuries, the rule was actually first stated in 1932, in J. Ray Arnold Corporation, etc. v. Richardson, 105 Fla. 204 (1932). That court held:

“Where one who has suffered personal injuries by reason of the negligence of another exercises reasonable care in securing the services of a competent physician or surgeon, and in following his advice and instructions, and his injuries are thereafter aggravated or increased by the negligence, mistake, or lack of skill of such physician or surgeon, the law regards the negligence of the wrongdoer in causing the original injury as the proximate cause of the damages flowing from the subsequent negligent or unskillful treatment thereof, and holds him liable therefor. Texas & Pacific Ry. Co. v. Hill, 237 U.S. 208, 35 S.Ct. 575, 59 L.Ed. 918.” At 135.

Therefore, it can be argued that the main importance of Hertz is not so much that the original wrongdoers are liable for subsequent injuries, but that they cannot bring subsequent wrongdoers into the primary action to seek indemnification. (The court distinguished between joint, or concurrent, tortfeasors and subsequent tortfeasors, like the doctor in Hertz. In the former situation, the law in Florida is long established that concurrent tortfeasors can, even must, be joined in the primary action.

The Supreme Court reasoned that mixing the claims in one suit would “confuse and obfuscate the issue of liability by forcing the plaintiff to concurrently litigate a complex malpractice suit in order to proceed with a simple personal injury suit.”

The liability aspects of Hertz were applied recently in Joey James Pedro and Jill Pedro v. Betsy Baber, a March 7, 2012 decision out of the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida. The defendants tried to prevent the trial court from instructing the jury that, if they found the plaintiff’s actions in seeking and choosing medical care was reasonable, they, the defendants, would be liable for the injuries arising from negligent medical care. The court gave the instruction and the defendants appealed. The DCA affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

It is not absolutely clear when the now-named “Stuart Instruction” should or should not be given. The defendants in Baber argued that the surgery for which the plaintiff sought compensation, was not only unnecessary, but was for a condition unrelated to the accident. There was testimony supporting the unrelated argument, and had that testimony not been controverted, perhaps it would have been improper for the court to give the instruction.
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