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Distict of Columbia v. Price

September 14, 2000

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLANT,
V.
WALTER PRICE, APPELLEE.



Before Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Pryor, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. José M. López, Trial Judge)

Argued June 15, 2000

This negligence action arises from an automobile accident that occurred on the morning of March 21, 1994, when appellee Walter Price collided with a utility pole after apparently having suffered a stroke at the wheel. Mr. Price alleges that he was injured as a result of the failure of an officer of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to seek immediate medical attention for him. After a four-day trial, the jury found that the District was negligent and awarded Price $200,000 in damages. Contending that the evidence adduced by Mr. Price was insufficient as a matter of law to prove causation, the District appeals from the trial court's denial of its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL). We reverse. *fn1

I. THE FACTS

On the morning in question, Officer Michael Petty of the MPD received a report of an accident with injuries. Officer Petty responded to the scene at approximately 9:30 a.m., and he found Mr. Price sitting in his truck. Price's pupils were dilated, he had a blank stare, and his speech was slurred. When Mr. Price got out of the truck, he fell to the ground. Petty claimed that he detected a "slight odor of alcohol" on Price's breath, and it appeared to Petty that Price was intoxicated. Further investigation revealed that Mr. Price's driver's license had been revoked, and at 10:16 a.m., Officer Petty arrested him for operating a motor vehicle after revocation and on suspicion that he had been driving while intoxicated. Officer Petty then called for a mobile alcohol cruiser to administer a breathalyzer test, but no cruiser was available. Price testified that he told Petty at the scene that he (Price) had suffered from high blood pressure and that he wanted to go to the hospital. Price alleged that his request was refused. *fn2

Officer Petty then drove Price to the Traffic Division. Price testified that he advised the desk sergeant that he needed to go to the hospital. He claimed, however, that the officer told him that he must first take the breathalyzer test. Mr. Price stated that he was handcuffed to a chair, that he asked several times to go to the bathroom, and that the officers would not let him do so; this resulted in involuntary incontinence. Three breathalyzer tests were administered to Mr. Price, and all three were negative for the presence of alcohol. The last breathalyzer test was completed at 11:34 or 11:35 a.m. Immediately thereafter, Price complained for the first time of a new symptom, namely that he was now unable to move his left arm.

Officer Petty asked Price if he wanted to go to the hospital, and Price replied that he did. Petty then called for an ambulance, and the ambulance left Georgetown University Hospital at 11:59 a.m., arriving at the station at 12:16 p.m. Price was examined at the station, and the ambulance crew confirmed that he was suffering from paralysis on his left side. Price was driven by ambulance to the hospital, arriving there at 12:30 or 12:35 p.m. At this point, Price could not move his left hand, the left side of his face was numb, and he had to drag his left leg in order to walk.

At the hospital, Price was given a CAT scan *fn3 to identify the appropriate treatment. This diagnostic examination was necessary in order to determine whether administration of "Heparin," a blood thinner, would be appropriate. Heparin cannot undo the damage from a prior stroke, but it can prevent further blood clots from forming. If a patient has suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and is bleeding from the brain, however, the administration of Heparin is inappropriate and may kill the patient. Before treating Mr. Price with Heparin, hospital personnel therefore had to find out whether he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. In this case, the CAT scan revealed that Price was not bleeding from the brain and, at 1:40 p.m., Heparin was administered to him. By this time, his left side had already been paralyzed for approximately two hours.

At trial, Price introduced expert testimony which, if credited, established that he had suffered two distinct neurological episodes, or strokes. *fn4 The first episode injured Price's brain stem and caused his dizziness and vertigo, as well as the loss of consciousness that resulted in the accident. The second stroke affected the right side of his brain, causing the left-side paralysis. Price's theory at trial was that his second (and paralytic) stroke was proximately caused by the District's negligence in failing to obtain treatment for him in time.

Price testified that he remained at Georgetown University Hospital for about a month and that he was treated at the National Rehabilitation Hospital for approximately one year. He stated, inter alia, that he could no longer drive a car or play on his "old man basketball team." The jury found that the District's negligence caused Mr. Price's injuries and, as previously noted, awarded him $200,000.

II. LEGAL DISCUSSION

When reviewing the denial of a defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law, we view the record, and all reasonable inferences from the evidence, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and we reverse only if no impartial juror could reasonably reach a verdict for the plaintiff. See, e.g., Grant v. District of Columbia, 597 A.2d 366, 370 (D.C. 1991). Judgment as a matter of law is warranted, however, if the plaintiff has failed ...


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