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PA Supreme Court Considers Effect of Factual Admissions on Grant of Summary Judgment in Med Mal Action

In Stimmler v. Chestnut Hill Hospital, 602 Pa. 539, 981 A.2d 145 (2009), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to consider the effect of factual admissions on the grant of summary judgment in a medical malpractice action.

The plaintiff in Stimmler gave birth at Chestnut Hill Hospital in 1965. Following delivery, complications arose which required her to undergo a procedure which involved deep-needle catheterization. Over the next 35 years, the plaintiff continued to experience a number of venous maladies until an echocardiogram in 1999 revealed a coiled catheter in her heart measuring 12 to 18 inches with a chronic appearance. Suit was filed against the Hospital and various doctors alleging that the catheter was left in her body following the original 1965 procedure.

During the course of discovery, the defendants served the plaintiff with requests for admission under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. The plaintiff failed to respond to the admissions in the time provided under the rules, thereby deeming the request admitted, and otherwise failed to seek withdrawal of the admissions. Among other things, the requests admitted that the plaintiff had undergone catheterizations during 16 subsequent hospitalizations and that plaintiff had no information that the catheter in her body was from the 1965 procedure.

The defendants subsequently moved for summary judgment which was granted by the trial court and upheld by the Superior Court. On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the record provided sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the catheter was left in the plaintiff’s body during the 1965 procedure.

The Court placed great weight on the reports provided by the plaintiff’s two experts, stating that these expert opinions contained the requisite degree of specificity for the plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of negligence. Specifically, the plaintiff’s experts relied on the length and condition of the fragment in the plaintiff’s body in concluding that it “most likely” was left there during the 1965 hospitalization. The Court stated that the admissions did not challenge these expert conclusions.

The Court did suggest that admissions in “appropriate circumstances” may support the grant of summary judgment. However, the admissions in this case merely confirmed what was contained in the plaintiff’s medical records. The Court opined, “the lower courts erred by using the oranges of the ‘deemed admissions’ to render null the apples of Appellant’s expert witness reports on the issue of the identity of the catheter found in Appellant’s body.”

Based on the record of the case as a whole, and the requirements for summary judgment – namely freedom from doubt on any genuine issue of material fact – the Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.


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