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Delaware Supreme Court Resurrects Nursing Home Lawsuit Missing Expert’s C.V. – Dishmon v. Fucci

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was interested to see a nursing home decision from next door in Delaware. In Dishmon et al. v. Fucci et al., Michael Dishmon and others sued a nursing home for alleged malpractice leading to the death of his father. Dishmon filed an affidavit of merit, as required by Delaware law, as to the validity of his claims. However, the filing did not include a copy of the expert’s C.V. (professional resume), and the trial court dismissed the case on that basis. The Delaware Supreme Court reversed it, finding that the lack of a C.V. was a procedural error only and that the trial court should have used its discretion to allow the C.V. to be filed at a later date.

James Dishmon entered the Hockessin Hills nursing home in late December of 2004 with a variety of medical problems, including heart problems. Four days later, he died of acute coronary ischemia and coronary artery disease. His son, Michael Dishmon, alleges that contrary to his express instructions, Dr. Pasquale Fucci and his physician’s assistant, Bernie Schneider, put a “do not resuscitate” order on his father. Thus, the Hockessin Hills staff made no effort to revive the elder Dishmon when he fell ill. Michael Dishmon sued in December of 2006 and timely filed an affidavit of merit written by Dr. Herbert Muncie, which defendants moved to review in camera. That review led the judge to dismiss the case for three reasons: It did not contain a copy of Muncie’s C.V.; it didn’t demonstrate familiarity with the standard of care for a physician’s assistant; and it didn’t go into enough detail on Muncie’s opinion. Dishmon moved for relief from the judgment within two weeks, attaching the missing C.V., but the trial court denied it without comment four months later.

Dishmon appealed, challenging all three grounds for dismissal. The Delaware Supreme Court started with the issues of Muncie’s detail and familiarity with the physician’s assistant standards. Though Delaware’s affidavit of merit statute is designed to prevent frivolous lawsuits, the court said, its requirements are “purposefully minimal.” Thus, it found that Muncie’s affidavit was legally sufficient because it met the requirements of Delaware state law: “The General Assembly did not intend a minitrial at this stage of the litigation.” Thus, the defendants were wrong to argue that Muncie needed to demonstrate special familiarity or evidentiary support to file a legitimate affidavit. The high court next turned to the C.V., which it suggested the trial court may not have dismissed if it hadn’t found other parts of the affidavit insufficient. Delaware public policy favors allowing lawsuits to continue, it said. And trial courts have discretion to allow litigants to cure procedural mistakes. Thus, the trial court should have used its discretion to allow Dishmon to cure the mistake — particularly in light of the requirement that the C.V. be submitted in a sealed envelope, leaving the attorney no chance to double-check its contents. Finally, the high court urged trial judges to supply reasoning for their decisions, which was absent in this case.

Though the court is reserved in its disapproval, this case still seems like a victory to me as a Philadelphia injury lawyer. In essence, the high court found that the trial court dismissed the case arbitrarily and, for the first two reasons, for reasons contrary to the law. Plaintiffs are required to file these affidavits in many states, including Pennsylvania. While the requirements differ from state to state, the same principle applies: Litigants should not be required to go beyond the requirements of the statute in order to keep their cases alive. Indeed, these statutes are themselves special requirements that don’t apply to other kinds of lawsuits and were likely put in place for political reasons, requiring families that suffered from Pennsylvania nursing home abuse to jump through extra hoops. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice attorney, I vigorously fight to ensure my clients’ cases aren’t dismissed with arbitrary court rulings.

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