Blatz (plaintiff) brought suit against Allina Health System (defendant) for negligence.
Generally, in tort law if a jury can’t decipher what damages stem from a preexisting condition and what damages are attributable to a tortfeasor’s negligence, then the defendant cannot be found liable for all damages that occur.
Plaintiff called 911 one morning after she woke up and with a pain in her chest and also had pain when she breathed. 911 notified both the police and an ambulance service, which was owned by the defendant. When the police arrived, they began to attempt to perform CPR, but the ambulance service got lost and by the time they arrived the plaintiff was no longer breathing, which caused a 4-week coma. The plaintiff had a heart attack, which ultimately cause permanent mental and physical disabilities. The plaintiff sued for negligence arguing that but for the defendant getting lost, she would not have suffered these disabilities. An expert called by the plaintiff testified that the window of 2-5 minutes that the defendant was delayed was a crucial period and the plaintiff would not have suffered the brain damage if the defendant had not been late. However, the defendant’s expert testified that the damage occurred even before the police arrived, and it would have made no difference if they were late or not. The trial court instructed the jury to attempt and separate what damage was caused by the defendants delay and what damages were only caused by the heart attack. The trial court also instructed the jury that if they were unable to discern how to allocate damages, that the defendant should then be liable for all damages. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff for all damages, and the defendant appealed.
Whether if a jury can’t decipher what damages stem from a preexisting condition and what damages are attributable to a tortfeasor’s negligence, then the defendant cannot be found liable for all damages that occur?
Yes. if a jury can’t decipher what damages stem from a preexisting condition and what damages are attributable to a tortfeasor’s negligence, then the defendant cannot be found liable for all damages that occur.
While it is appropriate for two tortfeasors to be jointly and severally liable for two torts committed that harm a defendant, if there is only one tort and injuries caused by a preexisting condition, the tortfeasor cannot be liable for all damages. The jury should be instructed that if they cannot discern what damages are attributable to the tort and what are attributable to the preexisting condition, then it follows the plaintiff cannot be liable for all damages. Here, the defendant will only be responsible for damages that were caused by the delay in arrival. The trial judge instructed the jury that they should only be held liable for damages stemming from their negligence and thus narrowed the liability to their negligence and not the preexisting condition. While the instruction about allocating damages may have been confusing, the trial judge still limited damages attributable to the defendant’s negligence.