WRONGFUL DEATH / MEDICAL MALPRACTICE / CIVIL PROCEDURE / DAMAGES - BOUDREAUX V. PETTAWAY
Boudreaux v. Pettaway [Ms. 1100281, Sept. 28, 2012] __ So. 3d __(Ala. 2012). In Boudreaux v. Petttaway, a Cunningham Bounds case, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to affirm a $4 million judgment from a wrongful-death/medical-malpractice case. The victim, Ms. Hall, was a 32-year-old mother who presented to Springhill Memorial Hospital in Mobile in January 2006 with complaints of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, thus undergoing an exploratory laparotomy during which Boudreaux and CRNA Ortego administered anesthesia. Hall presented with numerous risk factors for aspiration during routine induction; however, despite those risk factors, Boudreaux and Ortego, who failed to physically examine Hall before administering the anesthesia, employed a routine induction instead of a rapid-sequence induction as required for patients with such risk factors. In the course of the routine induction, Hall aspirated bile into her lungs which led to her death. Boudreaux, Ortego, and their practice group, Coastal Anesthesia, P.C., argued on appeal that the circuit court erred in denying their motion for a new trial and remittitur. They first asserted that nine of the twelve jurors seated to decide the case suppressed material information during voir dire. The Supreme Court concluded that the circuit court did not exceed its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial on this basis, as the circuit court correctly concluded that the jurors' alleged failures to fully respond to questions during voir dire could have been the "result of the ambiguous and self-limiting nature of the questions asked by defense counsel." "Given the phrasing of the voir dire questions posed by defense counsel, the absence of any demonstration of willfulness on the part of the allegedly untruthful jurors, the lack of materiality of the alleged undisclosed matters, and the limited scope of our review, we are unable to hold that the trial court exceeded its discretion in concluding both that the cause of the failures to respond was misunderstanding of the questions posed and that no probable prejudice resulted." Defendants also asserted a violation of their constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection through application of Alabama's wrongful death statute to hold Coastal vicariously liable for the actions of Boudreaux and Ortego. Citing Alabama Power Co. v. Turner, 575 So.2d 551 (Ala. 1991), and Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Co. v. Yeldell, 274 U.S. 112 (1927), the Court found no constitutional injury. "[T]he argument that Coastal lacked notice that it would be held 'directly culpable' for the negligent acts of its agents or employees, if and when such acts ultimately resulted in death, is without merit. Accordingly, the application of Alabama's wrongful-death statute denied the defendants neither due process nor equal protection of the law, and, as to that argument, the trial court did not exceed its discretion in denying them a new trial." Defendants also alleged a constitutional injury because the circuit court was unable in an Alabama wrongful death case to apply each of the BMW v. Gore three factors for assessing alleged excessiveness of a punitive damages award. Specifically, they argued that because Alabama's wrongful death statute provides solely for an award of punitive damages in a wrongful death case, this "leaves a defendant's right to due process unprotected." Citing Tillis Trucking v. Moses, 748 So.2d 874 (Ala. 1999), and Cherokee Elec. Coop. v. Cochran, 706 So.2d 1188 (Ala. 1997), the Court found no constitutional infirmity. "Because Alabama's wrongful-death statute provides for only punitive damages, Alabama courts are unable to apply formulaically the pertinent Gore guidepost in examining the reasonableness of a punitive-damages award by comparing it to the compensatory-damages award.... As Tillis Trucking makes clear, however, a punitive-damages award in a wrongful-death case may nonetheless be compared and evaluated, though perhaps not in a strictly mathematical sense.