Brief Fact Summary. Alleging that she was infected with AIDS after being given contaminated plasma supplied to a hospital by United Blood Services (a division of Blood Systems, Inc.), Plaintiff patient and her husband filed a negligence action against Defendant blood bank.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The law imposes on a blood bank the duty to exercise due care under the attending circumstances to the end that those receiving health care will benefit and adverse results therefrom will be minimized by the use of available and proven scientific safeguards. A blood bank is liable in negligence, therefore, when it fails to make use of, or makes unreasonable use of, available and proven scientific safeguards in the course of acquiring, preparing, or transferring human blood or its components for use in medical treatment.
* Did the court of appeals err in overruling the trial with regard to the standard of care to be applied in cases involving the acquisition, preparation, and transfer of human blood?
* Was the court of appeals correct in ordering a new trial because the trial court erroneously applied the standard of care in such cases?
* Yes. The Colorado Supreme Court held that the blood bank was a member of a national community and, as such, was subject to a national professional standard applicable to the blood banking community.
* Yes. While the trial court properly concluded that the blood bank was subject to a national professional standard of care, it erroneously applied that standard in a manner that effectively precluded the patient and her husband from establishing that the national blood banking community’s standard of care was itself unreasonably deficient in not incorporating available safeguards designed to provide substantially more protection against the risk of infecting a transfusion recipient with AIDS. The case was remanded for a new trial.
Discussion. Nearly all jurisdictions have enacted statutes, like the one at issue in United Blood Services, that render a hospital, blood bank or medical personnel liable for damages sustained due to contaminated blood in connection, like here, with negligence claims. The court in United Blood Services addressed two primary issues: the proper standard of care to be applied, and the evidentiary issue of plaintiffs’ right to submit expert testimony.
With regard to the first issue, the court first stated, “Legal duty is defined in terms of a standard of care. The source of the duty and the corresponding standard essential to the proper discharge of the duty may originate from a judicial decision or a legislative enactment. A legal duty to use reasonable care arises in response to a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm to others.” However, in cases alleging professional negligence there are other considerations, and the court articulated the proper analytical framework: “For those practicing a profession, involving specialized knowledge or skill, reasonable care requires the actor to possess a standard minimum of special knowledge and ability, and to exercise reasonable care in a manner consistent with the knowledge and ability that is possessed by members of the profession in good standing.”
The court then identifies the manner in which such standards are to be established as a matter of proof. “A practicing professional is generally entitled to be judged according to the tenets of the school of practice which the practitioner professes to follow. Because in most cases of professional negligence the applicable standard is not within the common knowledge and experience of ordinary persons, the applicable standard must be established by expert testimony.” However, the court cautions adherence to an industry standard is not de facto evidence exculpatory of negligence: “Compliance with administrative safety regulations is a circumstance to be considered on the issue of due care but is not conclusive proof of that issue.” The court expanded on this last point, “If the standard that is adopted by a practicing profession is deemed conclusive proof of due care, the profession itself would be permitted to set the measure of its own legal liability, even though that measure might b
e far below a level of care readily attainable through the adoption of practices and procedures substantially more effective in protecting others against harm than the self-decreed standard of the profession.” In other words, a profession may not have adopted the most effective methods, and a plaintiff should be permitted to explore that possibility: “In a professional negligence case, a plaintiff shall be permitted to present expert opinion testimony that the standard of care that is adopted by the school of practice to which the defendant adheres is unreasonably deficient by not incorporating readily available practices and procedures substantially more protective against the harm that is caused to the plaintiff than the standard of care that is adopted by the defendant’s school of practice.”
It was in this matter that the lower court erred. Even though the court had correctly addressed the standard of care due, it nevertheless erred in precluding testimony that may have called into question the prevailing methods extant at the time of the harm alleged. This would be a question of fact, and thus properly before a jury. “If the jury finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the standard of care is unreasonably deficient, it must resolve the issue of the defendant’s negligence on the basis of all the evidence concerning the practices available to the defendant’s profession under circumstances existing at the time of the events.” Thus, both lower court’s erred: the trial court in excluding expert testimony, and the appellate court in wrongly holding that the trial court erred in construing the relevant statute as imposing a professional standard of care on the blood.