Law School Case Brief
Hicks v. United States - 368 F.2d 626 (4th Cir. 1966)
When a defendant's negligent action or inaction has effectively terminated a person's chance of survival, it does not lie in the defendant's mouth to raise conjectures as to the measure of the chances that he has put beyond the possibility of realization. If there was any substantial possibility of survival and the defendant has destroyed it, he is answerable. The law does not require the plaintiff to show to a certainty that the patient would have lived had she not been negligently treated.
After a 10-minute examination, the doctor diagnosed the decedent with gastroenteritis and sent her home. She died later the same day of a high obstruction, which had produced symptoms that were consistent with gastroenteritis. She was 25 years old. Plaintiff, who was the administrator of the decedent's estate, filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for medical malpractice, alleging that the death was due to the negligence of the doctor on duty at the dispensary of the United States Naval Amphibious Base in diagnosing and treating her illness. The administrator contended that the doctor did not meet the requisite standard of care and skill demanded of him by the law of Virginia. The District Court, concluding that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the doctor was negligent, or that his concededly erroneous diagnosis and treatment was the proximate cause of her death, dismissed the complaint. The administrator appealed.
In a medical malpractice action under the Federal Tort Claims Act, did the trial court err in dismissing the complaint, which alleged that the dispensary physician's failure to meet the requisite standard of care?
The United States Court of Appeals reversed the district court's dismissal of the plaintiff administrator's complaint against the dispensary doctor under the FTCA and remanded the negligence action for a determination of damages. The Court held that the doctor breached the standard of care by failing to conduct more than a cursory examination of the decedent in light of symptoms of a lethal condition. On careful scrutiny, the government's expert demonstrated that the doctor did not conform to the required standard of care. Coupled with the explicit testimony of the plaintiff's experts, the government's testimony lead the Court inevitably to the conclusion that the doctor was negligent as a matter of law.
The Court also held that the doctor was not shielded from liability for his misdiagnosis because he did not establish a firm basis to support it. The district court's contrary ruling was not owed deference under Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a) because it was based on undisputed facts. In addition, uncontradicted testimony showed that the decedent would have survived if surgery had been promptly performed. Thus, doctor's negligence nullified whatever chance of recovery the decedent had and was the proximate cause of her death.
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