On February 6, 2011, Dorothy Jones tripped and fell in the vestibule of the Harkness Pavilion at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. As a result, Ms. Jones, then 84 years old, was in extreme pain, could not move her right (dominant) arm and had to be lifted up off the floor by ambulance attendant who then took her to the emergency room. Due to the fall, she sustained fractures of her proximal humerus.
In her ensuing lawsuit against the hospital and a related entity, Ms. Jones testified that she fell because of both a dirty surgical or food service cap on the floor and a hole covered by a rubber rain mat that bent when people walked over it. The mat had been placed by hospital maintenance personnel a month earlier after a flood damaged the floor and some ceramic tiles were removed. The jury found that (a) the hospital was negligent, (b) the cap, the missing tiles and the mat were concurrent causes of plaintiff’s injuries and (c) Ms. Jones was not at all comparatively negligent.
In their verdict, the jurors awarded plaintiff pain and suffering damages in the sum of $1,000,000 ($600,000 past – five years, $400,000 future – five years).
Defendants applied to the trial judge for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that (a) there was insufficient evidence as a matter of law to prove that they had either actual or constructive notice of any dangerous or recurrent condition (i.e., the cap on the floor) and (b) any height differential in the floor surface was insignificant and trivial. The judge agreed and he vacated the judgment and dismissed the complaint.
Plaintiff, though, prevailed on appeal; the verdict was reinstated and, because the trial judge had neglected to rule on defendants’ alternative request (to reduce the jury’s damage award of $1,000,000), the case was sent back to the trial judge to rule on the propriety of the amount of damages. He then decided that the award should be reduced from $1,000,000 to $300,000 ($150,000 past, $150,000 future).
Plaintiff again appealed, this time arguing that the trial judge should not have reduced the damage award and that it should be reinstated. In Jones v. New York-Presbyterian Hospital (1st Dept. 2018), the appellate court declined to reinstate the damage award, instead determining that $550,000 ($400,000 past, $150,000 future) is the appropriate pain and suffering award in this case.
Here are the injury details:
- Emergency room treatment for 12 hours on day of accident; diagnosed with three-part comminuted proximal humerus fracture of greater tuberosity and humeral neck; discharged with sling
- Follow-up treatment with orthopedic surgeon the next day (and for nine months thereafter) – treated conservatively with three injections and physical therapy for a few months
- Malunion of the bone fractures with impingement syndrome (because of an elevated tuberosity)
- Continuing pain, significant loss of range of motion, stiffness and difficulty sleeping
- Unable to raise arm above head; unable to perform household tasks such as cooking and cleaning
Plaintiff produced an orthopedic surgeon expert, Gabriel Dassa, M.D., who testified that due to her fall, plaintiff has a 70% loss of function of her right shoulder, progressive post-traumatic arthritis caused by the malunion and the only reasonable option left for her is a total shoulder replacement which, he said, is done for pain relief and does not restore function.
Defendants produced their own expert, Andrew Rokito, M.D., the Chief of the Division of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Rokito opined that (a) plaintiff has a functional range of motion in her shoulder that is commensurate with the ability to perform activities of daily living independently, (b) she has no arthritis in her shoulder joint and (c) she has significantly improved with no need for any further medical treatment for her shoulder.
Plaintiff testified that before the accident she was self-sufficient and self-reliant, would go food shopping and cook on her own, and was very social and happy. After the accident, she (and her daughter) testified, she became immobile, reliant on her daughter and depressed because of chronic shoulder pain.
The defense, though, suggested that plaintiff’s pre-existing medical conditions and advanced age contributed to her pain and suffering noting that plaintiff had (a) been taking a narcotic pain medication for years before this accident (since she fractured her tibial plateau in 2008), (b) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and was hospitalized in 2015 for pulmonary edema, (c) coronary artery disease with a heart attack in 2001 and three hospitalizations for cardiac conditions in the six months before trial , and (d) long-standing lumbar disc disease and pain. Further, they noted, Ms. Jones had not, as of the time of trial, received any treatment for her shoulder in the preceding four years.
- This was a very hard fought case, over seven years, involving some of New York’s most highly regarded attorneys: Burns & Harris (trial counsel for plaintiff), Brian J. Isaac of Pollack, Pollack, Isaac & Decicco (appellate counsel for plaintiff) and Barbara D. Goldberg of Martin Clearwater & Bell (appellate counsel for defendants).