Hospital Patient Denied Punitive Damages in Shared Needle Case

The Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department has modified an order issued by the Supreme Court of Cattaraugus County that denied a hospital’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint. Beville v. Olean General Hospital and Upper Allegheny Health Systems, Inc., 1460 CA 14-00944

syringe1.jpgIn 2011, hospital staff administered several insulin injections to the plaintiff during a stay at the defendant’s hospital. Several years later, the plaintiff received a letter from the hospital stating that the hospital had discovered that one or some of the needles used to inject insulin into the plaintiff may have been shared with multiple patients. In its letter, the hospital offered free testing for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.

Distraught by this revelation, the plaintiff filed suit in Cattaraugus County for negligence and emotional distress. In her complaint, the plaintiff argued that the hospital was negligent by allowing insulin pens to be used on multiple patients and the fear of contracting a deadly blood-borne virus caused emotional distress. The plaintiff also sought punitive damages against the hospital.

The hospital filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s entire complaint under CPLR 3211(a)(7). The lower court wholly denied this motion. CPLR 3211 is the New York civil procedure rule regarding motions to dismiss. There are several grounds on which a defendant may seek to dismiss a case under CPLR 3211, such as a lack of documentary evidence. The most common ground for a motion to dismiss, however, is CPLR 3211(a)(7)’s “failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff when deciding a motion to dismiss. The court is not to decide the motion on whether the plaintiff’s complaint has structural defects but rather whether a claim actually exists. In its motion to dismiss, the defense may articulate defects in the complaint. In the event that the complaint is unclear or fails to include a technical pleading requirement, the proper remedy is to provide the plaintiff with an opportunity to amend the complaint, not dismiss the complaint.

Here, the appellate court held that the lower court properly denied the hospital’s motion to dismiss the entire complaint for failure to state a claim. The appellate court held that the plaintiff successfully alleged both negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress on behalf of the hospital. However, the appellate court did dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Punitive damages are fines or fees assessed against a defendant as punishment for its wrongdoing. Punitive damages can only be assessed in cases involving wrongdoing so severe that it was only caused by wanton dishonesty, criminal indifference, or a lapse in morality. The appellate court in this case found that the complaint did not provide any evidence that the hospital acted in bad faith regarding the sharing of insulin needles and thus dismissed the claim for punitive damages. The appellate court modified the lower court’s order by granting the hospital’s motion to dismiss with regards to the punitive damages claim only.

Shared needles are surprisingly common at hospitals. Due to health code regulations and the risk of transmitting an infectious or blood-borne virus between patients, hospitals are prohibited from sharing or reusing needles. While the hospital in this case did the right thing by informing the plaintiff of the issue, the news came two years after the actual mix-up. If the plaintiff had contracted a deadly virus due to the mix-up, this delay in informing the plaintiff could have cost her valuable treatment time if undetected.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of shared needles or other contamination at a hospital, you may have a claim for negligence and other injuries. Contact the experienced medical malpractice attorneys at Gallivan & Gallivan today to discuss your potential claim.

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