On Tuesday evening a Salt Lake County jury hit Avalon Care Center, dba North Canyon Care Center in Bountiful, with a verdict of $1,800,000 on a medical negligence wrongful death claim. 

The case is Cheryl Sprague, on behalf of the Heirs and Estate of Morley R.
Spr​ague v. Avalon Health Care
, #140908104 (Judge Barry Lawrence). 

Plaintiffs’ counsel: Norm YounkerAshton Hyde and John Macfarlane. Defense counsel: Cathy Larson and Kat Abke.​

Here is the Special Verdict. 
Salt Lake Wrongful Death Attorney Blog

Background

Morley Sprague, age 57, suffered from the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis and had been confined to a wheelchair for many years. In August 2012, Mr. Sprague was admitted to LDS Hospital with a diagnosis of sepsis and urinary tract infection. He was then transferred to Avalon Care Center dba North Canyon Care Center for a month, where he developed pressure ulcers on his right hip. After discharge from Avalon Care the pressure ulcers never fully resolved, and allegedly led to his eventual death two years later. The death certificate stated that Mr. Sprague died as a result of the pressure ulcer, but this cause of death was hotly disputed by the defense.

Mr. Sprague’s obituary

The basic claim against North Canyon was the failure to properly prevent the pressure ulcer, care for it, or even to bring it to the attention of the wound care specialist. The defense contended that there were already pre-existing pressure ulcers, and that the one on the right hip was eventually healed. It did not cause his death– it was his severe and worsening MS leading to an unrelated C-diff infection.

There were no special damages claimed other than medical expenses incurred at various facilities between August 2012 and Mr. Sprague’s death in June 2014. He left as heirs his wife and three adult children.

After a six-day trial, the jury awarded $481,000 in past medical expenses and the same amount for non-economic damages to the Estate of Morley Sprague. Also awarded was $481,000 to his widow and $125,000 to each of the three children, as well as funeral expenses. 

Notes

-Proving causation of Mr. Sprague’s death was never a slam-dunk for plaintiff’s counsel; indeed, defendants had excellent experts testifying that the death was not the direct result of the pressure ulcer two years earlier. Obviously the jury disagreed, and I speculate that playing a part in this was the special verdict question asking if the breach of the standard of care was cause [not the cause] of the death. That is Utah law, or least it is the MUJI instruction– see, MUJI CV309. (And then consider the line of “substantial factor” cases.)

-In 2015, Smith v. USA held the $450,000 medical malpractice general damages cap unconstitutional in wrongful death claims, so there will be no major reductions in the award

-However, the verdict included $481,000 to the estate for Mr. Sprague’s own non-economic damages under the survival claim. The defense has filed a motion to reduce this to the statutory cap of $450,000. (I doubt that this will be opposed.)

-There were 45 motions in limine filed. These involved such things as collateral sources, “billed vs. paid,” and the scope of expert testimony. The usual “Reptile” issues were also briefed, and Judge Lawrence’s decision on these is of interest.

​-A Rule 68 pretrial offer of judgment of $500,000 was made by counsel for plaintiffs and, obviously, rejected. In Utah, our version of the offer of judgment rule does not have much bite; it doesn’t mean plaintiff will be able to recover expert fees or the like– only the minor recoverable “costs” under Rule 54 that were incurred after the offer of judgment.

-This is the second large wrongful death verdict in 2017 for this team of plaintiffs’ lawyers. In February, they received a (net) verdict of around $2,000,000 in Wilcox v. Exodus Health Care. (See my posts on that trial here.) 

-In any wrongful death claim, of course each heir has a separate claim, and a separate line for damages. It’s not just one lump-sum award– that way there would be no telling which portion of the damage award goes to each heir. Here you can see that the jury distinguished between the losses of the adult children ($125,000 each) and the widow ($481,000), as one would expect.  Also note that this was all for loss of society, companionship, etc.– there was no loss of future income by the heirs, as Mr. Sprague was unfortunately disabled by his MS.

Salt Lake Wrongful Death Attorney