On November 5, 2007, an 86 year old woman entered Graystone Ophthalmology for a routine vision examination and left the doctor’s office with both a fractured shoulder and a fractured hip along the right side of her body. In an effort to receive help with some of the costs for treatment and rehabilitation of her injuries, the woman proceeded with a lawsuit against the doctor’s office.
When filing a lawsuit, there are many different levels of review for your claim. In this situation, the first level of review – the trial court – granted summary judgment in favor of Graystone. But what does this mean? Every claim has a certain number of elements that must be proven in order for you to win your lawsuit. For example, negligence (what the injured party is claiming) has four elements: (1) Duty, (2) Breach of that Duty, (3) Proximate Causation, and (4) Damages. Essentially, if the person that is trying to dispose of the case (in this matter, the doctor’s office) can show that the injured party cannot prove one of those four elements, the case will not proceed.
However, this is not the end of the line. In this case, Graystone was successful at the trial level and was granted summary judgment, but the plaintiff appealed to the next level of review – the Court of Appeals (“COA”). The COA in this case determined that the trial court was incorrect and reversed the decision. Both parties agreed that Graystone Ophthalmology owed the patient a duty (satisfying element one) and that the patient did in fact receive damages or injuries (satisfying element four).
The COA found that there was an issue of material fact as to whether there was a breach of the duty the doctor’s office owed to the patient and whether that breach was the proximate cause of the patient’s injuries. Because the COA believed that a jury should hear the case based on elements two and three, the case was reversed and sent back to the trial court.
Why does this matter?
Summary judgment takes away your jury trial because as a matter of law, you cannot prove your case. Because this case has been reversed by the Court of Appeals, the injured woman will be able to have her day in court and be heard by a jury. If you have been injured, it is important to know that claims of negligence are rarely disposed of at the summary judgment stage and are often times taken in front of a jury where your claim will be evaluated by your peers. See generally, DeHaven v. Hoskins, 95 N.C. App. 397, 402 (1989).
This is a good thing for those who are injured because the standard in most negligence cases revolves around what a reasonable prudent person would have done in similar circumstances. This standard is abstract and influenced largely by peoples personal lives and experiences, thus a discussion between your peers of the circumstances surrounding the case may be helpful to your claim.
Here, the elderly woman was told to sit on a rolling chair so that her eyes could be examined but before she could get to the table, she became unsettled on the chair and fell to the ground. There were certain facts that the COA seemed to take issue with, such as: the office’s knowledge of a prior fall from the chair, the fact that the employee conducting the examination often put her foot on the rollers to keep them steady while the patient sat down (but she did not do it in this instance), the lack of handles on the chair, and the age of the patient in this case. These are facts that will now be brought out at trial and the jury will be able to decide whether Graystone Ophthalmology was negligent in regards to the plaintiff’s claims.
If you have been injured as a result of someone else’s negligence, you should contact a knowledgeable personal injury attorney in your area to help you evaluate your options.