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Execution of Release Bars Subsequent Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

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The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently affirmed a Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas’ decision granting summary judgment in favor of appellees regarding whether or not the appellants’ execution of a release barred them from subsequently suing for medical malpractice.  The Superior Court relying on Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital found that it did. 

Several years prior to the filing of the present action, the appellants participated in a mass tort litigation related to appellant-wife’s use of hormone replacement therapy. The mass tort litigation took place in 2004.  Appellant-wife took hormone replacement drugs from 1990 to 1998; she was subsequently diagnosed with cancer in 2002, by appellee-doctor.  The appellants filed the medical negligence action at issue in 2011.  In 2002 appellee-doctor performed a partial mastectomy with axillary dissection and sentinel node identification on appellant-wife.  Following this procedure, appellant-wife experienced pain and discomfort for eight years, but continued under the care of appellee-doctor.  In 2010 appellee-doctor located and removed a surgical sponge that was left behind in the 2002 surgery. 

In 2013 the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of all the defendants and dismissed the appellants’ action.  The court found that the claims were barred by the terms of the release they had executed in relation to the settlement of the mass tort litigation.  The appellants raised several issues on appeal.

The appellants argued that the trial court inappropriately relied on Buttermore to enforce the release against them because there was no causal connection between the hormone replacement therapy and the appellant’s breast cancer.  They also argued there was no specific event to release and that they did not intend to release the appellees when they executed the release.  The Superior Court found these claims to be meritless.  The Court reasoned that the plain language of the release must be given its full effect.  It is not relevant that the authority cited by the appellant relies on incidents where the releases cite a particular event.  The release signed by the appellants does not specifically require a causal link between ingestion of hormone replacement drugs and possible later claims.  The application of the release was not limited to injuries sustained as a result of ingestion of the hormone replacement drugs, it was more general, and applied to “the facts, events, and incidents that gave rise to or related in any way to this Civil Action.”   The Court determined that this language clearly includes the medical malpractice action alleged to have occurred during appellant-wife’s surgery.  If appellant-wife had not developed breast cancer she would not have had reason to join the mass tort litigation, therefore, the breast cancer clearly falls within the language of the release. 

The appellants also argued that they never intended to release the appellees and that it would not make sense for them to release a party they had just filed suit against.  The Court noted that Pennsylvania uses a two-prong test to construe the effect of a release.  First the court must look at the effect of a release using the ordinary meaning of its language, and second, interpret the release as covering only such matters to fairly have been with within contemplation of the parties when the release was given.  The trial court accurately applied the first component and considered the ordinary meaning of the release’s language, but did not consider the second prong related to the contemplation of the parties.  Even though the trial court did not consider the contemplation of the parties the Court reasoned that because the appellee-doctor’s alleged negligence had already occurred at the time the release was executed, the alleged malpractice was within the appellants’ contemplation at the time the release was executed.  Therefore, the second prong was satisfied.

Ultimately, the Court found that the release executed by appellants in relation to the mass tort litigation barred any claims against appellee-doctor for medical malpractice, despite the fact that a surgical sponge was left inside her for eight years.  

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