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Plaintiff in medical malpractice actions seeks to amend complaint based on new law – Stuart v. Health & Hosps Corp., 7 Misc.3d 225 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., 2005)


The issues before the court in Stuart v. Health & Hosps Corp. are whether a plaintiff is permitted to amend her complaint based on a change in the law that occurred after she initially filed her claim and whether the new law should be applied retroactively.

In 2000, plaintiff Ashmeade filed a medical malpractice claim on behalf of her deceased son who was born with brain damage and cerebral palsy. Plaintiff claims that the injuries suffered by her son, who was born in 1996, were due to the negligent care by the defendant. In the complaint there were two causes of action. First, on behalf of her son, the plaintiff sought recovery for pain and suffering. The second cause of action was based upon a lack of informed consent.

At the time that the plaintiff file her claim, the law did not give a mother a cause of action for emotional distress in cases where her baby was stillborn or was severely impaired at birth. However, in 2004 the New York Court of Appeals changed the law when it decided Broadnax v. Gonzalez,  777 N.Y.S.2d 416 (2004). The court held that if medical negligence resulted in a miscarriage or stillbirth, then there was also a violation of duty of care to the mother. As a result, she would be entitled to damages for emotional distress. The same year, the court decided Sheppard-Mobley v King (10 AD3d 70 [2004]). This case focused on a child who was born severely impaired. The court held that even if the mother did not suffer a physical injury, if the child is born severely impaired, the mom would be entitled to damages for emotional harm because there would have been a violation of duty of care owed to the mother. Because of these two rulings, the plaintiff sought to amend the complaint filed on behalf of her son to include a claim for her own emotional distress. The defendant opposes the plaintiff’s motion.

New York law related to amending complaints is a fairly generous one. Courts will allow a plaintiff to amend a complaint as long as in doing so the delay will not cause prejudice or surprise.

In support of her motion to amend, the plaintiff points out that she could not have included the cause of action in her original filing as it is newly created. Furthermore, the plaintiff points out that the new cause of action has merit. In opposition, the defendant argues that the plaintiff is time-barred from adding a new cause of action. In addition, the defendant argues that holdings in Broadnax and Sheppard-Mobley should not be applied retroactively.

There are two issues that the court had to address. First, the court had to determine if the plaintiff should be permitted to amend her complaint. The court agreed with the plaintiff in that because it is newly created, there was no reason for the plaintiff to anticipate this new cause of action. In addition, once the plaintiff learned of the new cause of action, she timely filed her motion to amend her complaint. Finally, because the new cause of action relates directly to the same facts as the causes of action in the plaintiff’s original complaint, it is not barred by the statute of limitations.

The second issue is whether Broadnax and Sheppard-Mobley should be applied retroactively. To determine whether a new law should be applied retroactively, the court must look at three factors: 1). Whether the law overrules clear, past precedent that was relied upon by the litigants; 2). The history of the issue and the impact of retroactive application on its purpose; and 3). Whether any inequities arise by retroactive application.

The court found in favor of the plaintiff. The decisions in Broadnax and Sheppard-Mobley make it clear that their purpose was to extend the duty of care medical professionals owe to the expectant mother, as a patient, whose health is linked to the fetus. As for the second factor, it is clear that the courts in Broadnax and Sheppard-Mobley found no jurisprudential justification for the prior rule which failed to acknowledge and protect the mother’s emotional well-being and its inextricable relationship to the health of the child. By protecting mothers, Broadnax and Sheppard-Mobley ended vestiges of a legal anomaly. Finally, as evidenced by the fact that the medical profession did not voice an opinion on this issue, it is clear that retroactive application will not result in inequities to the medical profession.

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