Cramer v. Hon. Starr – Original Tortfeasor Rule Tested
Gregg Hollander | July 28, 2016 | Car Accidents
The Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled on the common law precedent of the original tortfeasor rule, which allows a person who is civilly liable to another for some injury may also be civilly liable for the negligence, mistake or lack of skill on the part of a doctor or surgeon who treats the injured person for that injury.
What is often considered is whether aggravation of the original injury or subsequent additional injury due to poor medical or surgical treatment was a natural and probable consequence of the original injury or a direct result of the original tortfeasor’s actions.
In Florida, this issue was weighed by the Florida Supreme Court in Stuart v. Hertz Corp., back in 1977. In that case, our highest court ruled that a rental car company whose vehicle injured a woman in an accident could be liable for injuries she sustained from medical negligence while she was being treated for her original injuries. The court further ruled the rental car company couldn’t introduce the doctor into the case and make him pay for his portion of the damages. (The federal Graves Amendment has since barred individuals from taking action against rental car companies for the negligence of their driving customers, though that is beside the point here).
In the Arizona case, Cramer v. Hon. Starr, the state supreme court issued two findings:
Per the comparative fault regime, the court concluded the original tortfeasor rule does not stop the defendant from alleging or proving that a non-party physician who treated the plaintiff for injuries sustained as a result of defendant’s negligence should be held to account. However, the original defendant can by liable for injuries sustained in the course of treatment that was reasonable for the original injuries, even if those injuries were negligently caused by the doctor, so long as they were foreseeable.
Essentially, as our West Palm Beach car accident attorneys can explain, it’s not automatic that the original defendant will be held liable for the negligent actions of a doctor, but it will depend on the court’s assessment of allocation of fault between parties and non-parties.
In the Cramer case, one woman rear-ended another in which plaintiff was a passenger. Plaintiff suffered numerous headaches and lower back injuries, for which she sought chiropractic treatment. It was later revealed that her persistent pain was attributable to several disc protrusions of her lumbar spine.
Eight months later, her doctor recommended surgery. However, that procedure didn’t cure her condition and in fact may have made it worse.
After the unsuccessful surgery, plaintiff filed injury action against defendant driver. At request of defendant, plaintiff underwent an independent medical exam and concluded plaintiff’s injuries were not the result of the car accident, but rather due to the unsuccessful surgery.
Based on that, defendant filed notice of naming the surgeon as a non-party at-fault. Plaintiff sought a motion to strike, arguing defendant, as the original tortfeasor, was liable for the foreseeable risks of her tort. Trial court agreed and granted motion to strike.
The trial court reversed. Although it is possible, the court ruled, for the original defendant to be held liable in some instances, for medical negligence stemming from treatment of those original injuries, the original tortfeasor rule doesn’t preclude a defendant from asserting – or a court from finding – that a non-party physician is also liable.
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Cramer v. Hon. Starr, July 18, 2016, Arizona Supreme Court
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