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New Mexico Appeals Court Clarifies Medical Malpractice Versus Ordinary Negligence in Richter v. Presbyterian Healthcare Services

Posted in Firm News

In Richter v. Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the Court of Appeals of New Mexico addressed the distinction between ordinary negligence and medical malpractice. In the wrongful death case, Ms. Richter was treated at Presbyterian Healthcare Services (PHS) for cardiac symptoms in 2001. Her doctor ordered related testing for what he suspected was an undiagnosed pheochromocytoma. Although Richter’s samples were initially sent to Regional Lab Corporation (RLC), they were later shipped to another laboratory for completion. About five days later and over the course of the weekend, two sets of results demonstrating that Richter in fact suffered from the undiagnosed condition were sent to RLC. On the following Monday, the results were processed by the laboratory. Although the results were electronically transmitted to the hospital, it is unclear whether the results were physically shipped to PHS on Monday or Tuesday.

The same day Richter’s results were processed, she was discharged from PHS. It is not apparent whether her physician reviewed Richter’s test results prior to her release from the hospital. About four years later, Richter passed away during surgery to remove a tumor on her adrenal gland. Although Richter’s surgeon ordered new testing to determine whether the lump was a pheochromocytoma, he apparently performed the surgery before receiving the lab results.

Following Richter’s death, her husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against PHS, RLC, and her surgeons. At trial, RLC argued that the Medical Malpractice Act applied to Mr. Richter’s claims. The district court found that RLC’s acts were ministerial in nature and subject to the principles of ordinary negligence. The court also granted summary judgment in favor of RLC and PHS. Mr. Richter then appealed.

In a case of first impression, the Court of Appeals stated that Mr. Richter could “proceed on some of his claims relying on an ordinary negligence theory and eschewing expert testimony.” The court also applied a functional test when it addressed whether RLC properly delivered Richter’s test results. According to the appeals court, a fact-dependent inquiry is required when determining whether a lawsuit that involves medical care qualifies as a medical malpractice claim. Because an issue of fact regarding which of Richter’s doctors should have received a copy of her test results existed and no expert testimony was required to prove the claim, the court reversed and remanded the district court’s decision with regard to RLC. The court also reversed a portion of the lower court’s decision with regard to PHS.

The New Mexico court’s decision in this case is significant because the statute of limitations, expert testimony, and other requirements are different for medical malpractice and ordinary negligence claims originating in the state.

You should contact the Fine Law Firm if you were hurt or a family member died as a result of a healthcare provider’s negligence in New Mexico. Our caring Albuquerque medical malpractice attorneys have more than 100 years of combined experience helping the victims of devastating personal injuries. To schedule a free, confidential case evaluation with a knowledgeable advocate, give the lawyers at the Fine Law Firm a call at (505) 889-3463 or contact us through our website.

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