Argued November 15, 2012
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAM-8012-07) (Hon. Robert I. Richter, Trial Judge)
Carl J. Schifferle, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Donna M. Murasky, Deputy Solicitor General, were on the brief, for appellant.
Keith W. Donahoe, with whom Frank R. Kearney was on the brief, for appellee.
Before Blackburne-Rigsby and Easterly, Associate Judges, and Reid, Senior Judge.
Easterly, Associate Judge:
Dr. Maurice Naccache appeals from a $6.5 million medical malpractice judgment. Angela M. Taylor sued him for his failure, while working at a public medical clinic, to give her adequate prenatal care that resulted in the premature birth and permanent severe disability of her son, Timothy Taylor. On appeal from a case that was litigated over the course of three years and culminated in a one-week jury trial, Dr. Naccache argues that the trial court made five errors, each of which require reversal. Specifically, he asserts that the trial court: (1) should have determined that Ms. Taylor's negligence claim on Timothy's behalf was barred by the equitable defense of laches; (2) should not have allowed Ms. Taylor to ask the jury to infer that Dr. Naccache never saw a lab report, based on that report's absence from the records available at trial; (3) should not have allowed Ms. Taylor to present a new negligence theory mid-trial; (4) should not have instructed the jury at the close of trial that Dr. Naccache was subject to a heightened duty of care; and (5) should have granted Dr. Naccache's motion for new trial because the combination of these errors resulted in a miscarriage of justice and because the jury's verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence. We affirm.
Ms. Taylor was twenty-seven to twenty-eight weeks pregnant with Timothy when she first visited the Anacostia Neighborhood Health Center, a public health clinic administered by the District of Columbia, for prenatal care on March 5, 1987. Dr. Naccache, an obstetrician at the clinic, saw Ms. Taylor and ordered both a urinalysis and a urine culture, routine tests administered to all pregnant patients of the clinic, to screen for asymptomatic bacteria ("ASB"). The urinalysis was run four days later, on March 9, and registered a 2 on a four-point scale. Despite reviewing the urinalysis results, Dr. Naccache did not contact Ms. Taylor or put her on any medication.
Approximately four weeks later, on April 2, Ms. Taylor visited the clinic again. During this visit, Dr. Naccache noticed that the clinic had yet to receive the urine culture lab report, which normally would have taken three to five days to complete. Dr. Naccache asked a nurse to check for the missing report but still did not inform Ms. Taylor of the urinalysis results or put her on any medication. In addition, Dr. Naccache did not order further tests or another lab culture. Dr. Naccache scheduled another appointment with Ms. Taylor two weeks later.
Before the date of her next appointment arrived, however, Ms. Taylor, now thirty-two to thirty-three weeks pregnant, developed severe cramping and began having contractions. When she went to the emergency room, she discovered that she was in labor. In addition, she had high levels of bacteria, protein, and blood in her urine, and her white-blood-cell count was abnormally high. The next day, Timothy was born prematurely. Shortly following his birth, Timothy suffered severe problems, including infection, seizures, oxygen deprivation, underdeveloped lungs, brain hemorrhaging, and brain damage. At around one year of age, Timothy developed cerebral palsy. Currently, Timothy has an IQ of 41, limiting his language and fine motor skills such that "there is nothing that he does that would be outside the range of a normal 6 month old." He is unable to sit up, stand, walk, or feed himself
In 1990, Ms. Taylor authorized her attorney at the time to request a set of medical records from the clinic, and the firm did so. Although counsel received a set of records, the records were never certified as complete and did not contain a copy of the urine culture lab report. In late 2007, Ms. Taylor began the instant litigation on Timothy's behalf by filing a complaint that alleged, inter alia, that Dr. Naccache had failed to assess, diagnose, and treat Ms. Taylor's ASB, causing Timothy's severe brain damage and cerebral palsy. After a prolonged discovery period and several rounds of pretrial motions, the trial began in October 2010. At trial, Dr. Naccache pursued several lines of defense, namely, that he gave Ms. Taylor the type of care that was required, that Timothy's problems were not the result of any negligence on Dr. Naccache's part, and that Ms. Taylor waited too long to bring the claim. The jury sided with Ms. Taylor, returning a verdict for $6.5 million, and the trial court denied Dr. Naccache's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial. This appeal followed.
The complaint in this case was filed nearly twenty years after Dr. Naccache saw Ms. Taylor as a patient. But because Timothy was both a minor and non compos mentis, it was timely filed under two provisions of the D.C. Code that establish and toll the District's statute of limitations. See D.C. Code §§ 12-301, -302 (2001 & Supp. 2012) (tolling the statute for a minor until he becomes an adult and indefinitely for someone who is non compos mentis). In a pretrial motion, Dr. Naccache argued that Ms. Taylor's suit should be barred by the equitable defense of laches because the nearly twenty-year delay in bringing suit unfairly prejudiced him. The trial court rejected this argument, reasoning that laches was unavailable to actions at law. On appeal, Dr. Naccache argues that the trial court's ruling was incorrect and that we should remand to permit him to put on evidence showing that he had a winning laches defense. We review de novo the trial court's decision to reject Dr. Naccache's laches defense. See Technical Land, Inc. v. Firemen's Ins. Co., 756 A.2d 439, 443 (D.C. 2000). Applying that standard, we hold that the defense of laches does not apply to purely legal claims.
To assess the availability of laches as a defense to Dr. Naccache, we must first review some legal history. The American civil law system originally provided two means to resolve civil disputes: courts of law and courts of equity. Equity courts were intended to provide relief to individuals who had no remedies at law. Both court systems contained mechanisms for dealing with stale claims. In actions at law, a statute of limitations held the door open for litigants for a period of time predetermined by the legislature; within that period of time, any delay by the plaintiff in bringing a given case was immaterial. In actions at equity, the defense of laches was available, requiring a fact-intensive, case-by-case prejudice analysis that focused on the circumstances and actions of the particular parties. Whereas the application of a statute of limitations was rigid, calculated, and indiscriminate if the predetermined time period had tolled, laches was more free-form. A defendant could prevail if she could show on a particular set of facts that the plaintiffs delay was unreasonable and that the delay worked to the defendant's detriment.
In this era of dual civil justice systems, laches was viewed as a defense exclusive to claims at equity. Thus in Barbour v. Moore, 10 App. D.C. 30 (D.C. Cir. 1897), the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, the precursor to the present-day United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, noted that the case before it was not "a suit in equity . . . in which laches . . . is sometimes a bar to all relief[, ] but an action at law in which lapse of time, short of the period of limitations, is of no avail as a defence." Id. at 47-48. The court reaffirmed this proposition in Roller v. Clark, 38 App. D.C. 260 (D.C. Cir. 1912), stating that "[l]aches, though a good defense in equity, is no defense at law." Id. at 266.
With a few exceptions, the division between courts of law and equity has not survived in the modern era. With the adoption in 1938 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and specifically Rule 2, the federal courts created a single "civil action" by merging law and equity. A number of state courts had already merged their systems by this time and a great many more did so after. The District followed suit when it established its current court system in 1970, and adopted rules of civil procedure in large part, "derived directly from the . . . Federal Rules." See District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970, Pub. L. No. 91-358, 84 Stat. 473 (codified as amended at D.C. Code §§ 11-101 to -2504 (2001 & Supp. 2012)); see also Super. Ct. Civ. R. (introductory note); Super. Ct. Civ. R. 2 (creating one "civil action, " officially merging law and equity in the District).
Notwithstanding this merger here and elsewhere, the distinction between law and equity was not completely erased. For example, because the Seventh Amendment's "right of trial by jury" extends only to "Suits at common law, " the distinction is still used to define the breadth of that right. See Dairy Queen, Inc. v. Wood, 369 U.S. 469, 470-72, 477-79 (1962). Since merger, courts have had to determine whether specific distinctions between law and equity are part of the old formalism, which the merger purported to discard, or a substantive difference in approach that remains a relevant division. One question that has been considered post-merger in a number of jurisdictions, but never squarely in the District, is whether laches may cut off actions at law that are authorized under a statute of limitations.
The overwhelming majority of the state supreme courts we identified that have considered this issue continue, post-merger, to bar laches as a defense for actions at law. We identified only three states that, post-merger, allow laches to be raised as a defense in actions at law. Of those three, one does so only in a very circumscribed area of the law, which is inapplicable here. This leaves only two states — Kansas and South Dakota — whose highest courts have explicitly held post-merger that laches is available to all actions at law.
Like the majority of state courts that have considered the issue, the District of Columbia federal courts, post-merger, also do not permit laches to be raised as a defense to claims at law. In Saffron v. Department of the Navy, the D.C. Circuit explained that laches is "peculiarly a creature of equity, " applicable only to cases that are "purely equitable in character." 561 F.2d 938, 941 (1977); see also Farouki v. Petra Int'l Banking Corp., 811 F.Supp.2d 388, 405 (D.D.C. 2011) (noting that it is well settled that laches is a defense at equity), vacated on other grounds, 705 F.3d 515 (D.C. Cir. 2013); Potts v. Howard Univ. Hosp., 623 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 ...