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Paxton v. Washington Hospital Center Corp.

United States District Court, District Circuit

October 9, 2013

NICOLE PAXTON, Individually, and as P.R. of the Estate of Gerald Metheny, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON HOSPITAL CENTER CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Nicole Paxton is the daughter of Gerald Metheny, a Virginia resident who died shortly after a surgical procedure at The Washington Hospital Center here in the District of Columbia. Individually, and on behalf of Metheny’s estate, she has brought this diversity action against WHC and the doctor who performed the surgery, Steven Boyce, alleging that her father’s death was due to their negligence. In the midst of discovery, the parties now seek the Court’s determination of a choice-of-law issue. Plaintiff’s present Motion asks the Court to apply Virginia, rather than District of Columbia, law to damages for solatium – i.e., grief or distress – in her first count for wrongful death against WHC. She does so because the District does not recognize this category of damages. The Court, however, pursuant to well-settled District of Columbia choice-of-law principles, finds that such damages are not available here.

I. Background

As most of the Amended Complaint’s factual allegations relevant to this Motion – excluding, of course, any claim of negligence – appear to be undisputed by Defendants, the Court will begin there. On May 19, 2011, Gerald Metheny, who lived in Virginia, underwent surgery at WHC in Washington. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 1, 10. Plaintiff alleges that, during the surgery, Dr. Boyce perforated one of Metheny’s blood vessels, which caused bleeding that was, at least initially, undetected. Id., ¶ 12. Several hours later, Metheny was returned to surgery in the doctor’s attempt to remedy the error. Id., ¶¶ 16-18. Plaintiff claims Metheny suffered “an anoxic brain injury as a result of the . . . first surgery . . . .” Id., ¶ 19. He ultimately died on May 30 at WHC of a hemorrhagic attack, having left the hospital only for “several post-operative sedation ‘holidays.’” Id., ¶¶ 19, 20; Opp., Exh. 4 (Death Certificate).

On January 25, 2013, Plaintiff filed this suit against WHC and Boyce, alleging that Metheny’s death was the direct result of their malpractice. Plaintiff seeks damages against WHC under District of Columbia law for “funeral expenses, medical bills, pecuniary loss, emotional distress, loss of society, care, assistance, advice, and consortium . . . .” Am. Compl., ¶ 22. Plaintiff also seeks damages against WHC under Virginia law “for the grief suffered by [Metheny’s] surviving wife.” Id. Plaintiff contends that the Court should apply Virginia law to the grief claim because “both [Metheny] and his wife . . . were domiciled in . . . Virginia.” Id. While discovery was ongoing, the parties indicated at a status conference that they wished the Court to rule on a choice-of-law issue, and the Court permitted briefing.

In her initial brief, Plaintiff asked the Court “to apply Virginia law with respect to loss of consortium as the marital relationship resided in Virginia.” See Mot. at 1. As Defendant pointed out in its Opposition and Plaintiff later admitted in her Reply, however, Virginia does not recognize loss-of-consortium claims. See Opp. at 12-14; Reply at 2-4. In her Reply, Plaintiff claimed that she had been “us[ing] the term Consortium to refer to Solatium” and was really referring to solatium damages the whole time. See Reply at 2. Once Plaintiff and Defendant were on the same page as to what type of damages were being sought – that is, solatium, not loss of consortium – the Court allowed additional briefing to flesh out the issue. See Minute Orders of August 26 & 30, 2013 (granting permission for Surreply and Reply to Surreply). The Court, therefore, will treat Plaintiff’s Motion as one seeking the application of Virginia law to the solatium damages.

II. Legal Standard

Federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply the substantive law of the state in which they sit. See Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 637 (1964) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938). Choice of law is a substantive issue under Erie. See Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496-97 (1941). This Court must therefore apply the District of Columbia’s choice-of-law rules.

The District of Columbia “use[s a] ‘governmental interests’ analysis, under which [it] evaluate[s] the governmental policies underlying the applicable laws and determine[s] which jurisdiction's policy would be more advanced by the application of its law to the facts of the case under review.” District of Columbia v. Coleman, 667 A.2d 811, 816 (D.C. 1995) (quoting Hercules & Co. v. Shama Restaurant, 566 A.2d 31, 40-41 (D.C. 1989)). In performing this analysis, District of Columbia courts “also consider the four factors enumerated in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145.” Id. These are:

a) the place where the injury occurred;
b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred;
c) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties; and
d) the place where the relationship . . . between the ...

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