Sometimes even outrageous medical misconduct requires expert legal representation to meet the court’s standards for awarding punitive damages. Consider the case of Tammy Cleveland, suing a doctor and a hospital for the death of her husband, Michael.
Michael Cleveland, age 46, collapsed after suffering a heart attack in Tops Friendly Market in Tonawanda, New York on a Friday night in October 2014. He was put into an ambulance and rushed to the emergency room at DeGraff Memorial Hospital in Buffalo, where a doctor pronounced him dead 25 minutes later.
Tammy couldn’t accept the pronouncement of her husband’s death — because she could see he was still breathing. She could see his moving arm. Four times she insisted that doctors or nurses come in to confirm Michael’s death, and four times they refused.
The coroner was called. What the coroner saw on his arrival was Mr. Cleveland struggling to stay on a gurney as he was being taken to another ambulance to be treated at another hospital. The coroner declined to issue a death certificate on the grounds that dead people don’t move.
The attending physician had eventually been persuaded to check Michael’s vital signs nearly three hours after pronouncing him dead, exclaiming “My God, he’s got a pulse,” according to Tammy. Only then was Michael rushed to a hospital that could give him the treatment he needed.
Michael finally got the care he needed for a 100 percent blockage of a coronary artery at another hospital, but he got it too late. He died at the second hospital the next day. His grieving widow later sued the doctor and the hospital for damages for intentional infliction of extreme emotional distress. That part of her case was thrown out of court.
How could a claim for such obvious injury be rejected by a court? The judge accepted the argument of the doctor’s lawyer that the alleged malpractice had to be not just negligent but evil and malicious. Furthermore, the judge ruled that since Tammy Cleveland hadn’t chosen to seek psychiatric care to deal with her grief, her emotional distress could not have been very severe.
The ruling would have been the end of Tammy’s case if she had not had legal representation who firmly believed in her cause. Look at the courtroom dialog reported in The Buffalo News and paraphrased below:
“There is no doubt that Mrs. Cleveland endured enormous grief,” the appellate judge said. “But to establish emotional distress, medical treatment is required, unless there is evidence greater than that.”
“In cases where grief is clearly evident, it can be presumed,” Tammy’s attorney said.
“You’re saying this is one of those cases?” the judge asked.
“This is one of those cases,” Tammy’s lawyer replied.
Tammy Cleveland’s case was sent back to the lower court to continue.
To win in court, it’s not enough to be obviously injured. To be a successful plaintiff, you need a skilled attorney who recognizes the justice of your case.