We spent yesterday in New York City, helping the Drug and Device Law Rock Climber (now the “Drug and Device Law Software Engineer” – yes, we are kvelling) move from one sublet to another as she continues her quest for the perfect apartment. The day was challenging, as these things tend to be. We lost count of the times we heard, “Why didn’t you tell me?” (That it was going to rain, that we would have to use the freight elevator, that we would be forced to keep moving the borrowed van because here was no legal place to leave it, that the refrigerator would bear the detritus of multiple unintentional science experiments – you get the idea. ) Each time, we responded with, “What difference would it have made?’
The plaintiff in today’s case, a tidy appellate decision in a medical malpractice case out of New Jersey Superior Court, asked the same question, and got the same answer. In Hopper v. Progressive Motion Med. Prod. Solutions, 2018 WL 2270839 (N.J. Super. Unpub. July 18, 2018), the defendant doctor performed arthroscopic knee surgery on the plaintiff. Following surgery, the doctor prescribed a cryotherapy device for the plaintiff to use at home to help control pain and swelling. The device worked by creating a flow of cold water across the plaintiff’s bandaged knee. The doctor and his staff instructed the plaintiff to use the device continuously for the first seventy-two hours after surgery and as needed thereafter, and to contact the doctor with any “issues” involving “drainage, redness, [or] warmth.” Hopper, 2018 WL 2270839 at *2.
The plaintiff used the device for seventy-two hours and intermittently for the next several days. On the fifth day, he saw the defendant doctor for complaints of swelling and bleeding. The doctor reassured the plaintiff that fluid buildup was common after surgery, aspirated the fluid from the knee, and instructed the plaintiff to return in a week. When the plaintiff returned, fluid had accumulated again, and the knee was painful. The doctor drained the fluid, but, he testified, was not “overly concerned.” He instructed the plaintiff to continue to use the device as needed.
Over the next several weeks, the plaintiff developed increased pain and swelling along with black skin and blisters on the knee. About five weeks after surgery, the plaintiff went to the emergency room complaining of nausea and increased knee pain. He was admitted, and ended up remaining in the hospital for a number of weeks. At the time of admission, the plaintiff had “eschar” – dead, necrotic tissue – over a wound in his knee. The eschar was surgically debrided, but it returned. Ultimately, the plaintiff was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, an infection of the bones in his knee. He was in danger of losing his leg, though doctors were able to save the leg by fusing the plaintiff’s knee.
The plaintiff sued the doctor for medical malpractice, alleging that the doctor deviated from the accepted standard of care during the postoperative period and that the deviations proximately caused his injuries. At trial, the plaintiff’s experts testified that the cryotherapy device caused “freezer burn” – a thermal injury – to the plaintiff’s skin, which the doctor did not recognize. According to the plaintiff’s experts, the untreated thermal injury destroyed the skin on the plaintiff’s knee. When the knee was debrided, the plaintiff’s experts testified, bacteria in the hospital environment infected the knee and eventually the bones, necessitating the fusion. The plaintiff’s experts testified that the doctor deviated from the standard of care by, inter alia, failing to warn the plaintiff of the risk of thermal injury and failing to personally instruct the plaintiff on how to use the cryotherapy device instead of allowing his staff to perform this task.
The defendant’s infectious disease expert opined, based on testing performed on tissue removed from the plaintiff’s knee, that the plaintiff was suffering from bullous cellulitis, blistering caused by a staph infection of the knee – not a thermal injury – when he presented to the emergency room, and that the infection would have occurred whether or not the plaintiff used the cryotherapy device. The defendant’s “standard of care” expert conceded that the doctor deviated from the accepted standard of care when he failed to warn the plaintiff of the risk of thermal injury. He testified that it was more likely than not that the plaintiff had sustained a thermal injury, but he did not opine that such injury was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages.
The jury agreed, finding that the defendant had deviated from the applicable standard of care but that the deviations were not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. On appeal, the plaintiff argued, inter alia, that, because it was ruled that the learned intermediary doctrine applied (the medical device manufacturer was no longer in the case when it was tried) and because there was sufficient evidence that thermal injury was a risk, the trial court committed error by failing to charge the jury about informed consent. The plaintiff argued that this error was “clearly prejudicial [because] defendant admitted he did not warn plaintiff of the risk of thermal injury.” Id. at *16.
The court disagreed, distinguishing between the product liability concept of “learned intermediary” and the medical monitoring theory of informed consent, explaining that “to prove a physician was negligent premised upon a theory of lack of informed consent, a plaintiff must show (1) the physician failed to comply with the applicable standard for disclosure; (2) the undisclosed risk occurred and harmed the plaintiff; (3) a reasonable person under the circumstances would not have consented and submitted to the [procedure] had he . . . been so informed; and (4) the [procedure] was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at *17 (citation omitted).
In any event, the court concluded that, because the jury had found that the doctor’s deviations from the standard of care were not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages, the court’s failure to charge the jury on informed consent was harmless error. Verdict affirmed, and doctor off the hook for failing to warn. Wish it were that easy for the mother of a certain software engineer.