Tina Martin, Administratrix of the Estate of Billie Carol Shreve, Deceased; and Donald Ray Shreve, Individually v. Ohio County Hospital Corporation
2008-SC-000211 October 1, 2009
Opinion by Justice Noble. All sitting; all concur.
Billie Carol Shreve died after suffering injuries in a car accident. Her estate and surviving spouse brought suit against the hospital under three causes of action: medical negligence, inadequate policies and procedures and violations of the Emergency Medical Treatment & Active Labor Act (EMTALA). The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, which included $250,000 in damages for Mr. Shreve’s loss of consortium for the period of time from the accident until Mrs. Shreve’s death (approximately 5 and a half hours). The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the hospital was entitled to a directed verdict on the EMTALA claim and that Mrs. Shreve had not lived long enough after the accident to allow for loss of consortium damages since such damages terminated at her death.
The Supreme Court first addressed the loss of consortium issue, noting that at common law, damages terminated at the death of the spouse since the loss would then be covered by a wrongful death suit. However, the General Assembly enacted a loss of consortium claim by statute (KRS 411.145) which creates a cause of action for the spouse, not the estate. The Court noted that the statute is silent as to when the loss terminates. The Court determined that the focus of KRS 411.145 is compensatory in nature. Thus, the Court reasoned—full compensation could not be gained if damages are required to terminate at death. Further, the Court held that to put a value on loss of consortium while a spouse is incapacitated but to then say the loss is worthless after death defies common sense. The Court also pointed out that terminating loss of consortium damages at death provides a “perverse incentive” for tortfeasors to kill their victims instead of leaving them disabled. Lastly, the Court noted that the vast majority of states have statutory or case law providing that loss of consortium damages do not terminate at death. For these reasons, the Court reinstated the jury award and held that it would not impose a limitation on damages where the statute was silent on the matter.
The plaintiffs had also prevailed at trial on their claim that the hospital’s failure to follow EMTALA—the federal act designed to prevent hospitals from “dumping” patients who lack insurance or cannot pay—resulted in delayed treatment which caused Mrs. Shreve’s death. The Court upheld the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the hospital was entitled to a directed verdict on the EMTALA claim—agreeing that all statutory requirements were met. However, the Court held that the trial court’s refusal to grant a directed verdict on the EMTALA claim was harmless since the jury found liability for wrongful death on three theories of causation. Lastly, the Court provided appropriate jury instructions for use in EMTALA claims. These instructions do not include a general negligence instruction, since negligence is not a proper element of an EMTALA claim.