Lawsuit over post-MRI death allowed to proceed

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires
DETROIT—A suit filed by the estate of a man who became a paraplegic — and later died — after an MRI will continue after a reversal by a Michigan Court of Appeals panel.

In Heidt v. St. John Hospital and Medical Center, the Wayne County Circuit Court granted summary disposition for the defendant on the grounds that “plaintiff’s experts had offered conflicting and unsupported testimony about the standard of care and had presented speculative theories of causation regarding the remaining defendant MRI technicians.”

But the panel concluded that the trial court erred in ruling that the plaintiff failed to establish questions of material fact as to the standard of care, breach and causation of the decedent’s paraplegia.

The Oct. 30 unpublished per curiam opinion was issued by Judges Jonathan Tukel, Jane M. Beckering and Douglas B. Shapiro.

The case

After a fall at home on Oct. 15, 2011, decedent George Heidt was referred by his physician to the defendant hospital for MRI imaging. He had a severe curvature of the spine. On an MRI screening form, Heidt wrote that he had a hard time getting into the machine for a previous examination.

The manner in which the decedent was placed flat on his back on the MRI table is a disputed question of fact, according to the appeals court opinion.

“However, it is not disputed that once he was supine he immediately told the MRI technicians that he had a severe burning pain in his abdomen. They assisted him back to a seated position and he told them that he could no longer feel his legs,” the opinion stated.

Two hospital employees did not recall the process of how the decedent moved from a seated position into a supine position. Another employee testified that the decedent received assistance in getting on his back.

“After the incident, George underwent emergency neurosurgery in which it was determined that his T-10 vertebra was fractured and that the fracture had displaced so as to cause severe injury to his spinal cord,” the opinion stated. “While the fracture was surgically reduced and fixated during the surgery, the damage to his spinal cord was irreparable. George remained a paraplegic until he died of complications a few months later.”

The estate filed a complaint against the defendant hospital, MRI technicians, and the named physicians and their professional corporations. The claims against the physicians were dismissed by stipulation. The trial court ruled for the defendant.

COA analysis

The panel agreed with the plaintiff that the trial court erred in disregarding its experts’ standard-of-care opinions.

Plaintiff’s primary standard-of-care expert Darlene Perelka testified that moving the decedent from a seated position on the table to a supine position in “one fluid motion” — as described by an MRI technician — was a violation of the standard of care which “requires that the patient be positioned in a safe and prudent manner rather than with the use of force.” She explained that the standard of care required the technicians to wait for him “to be ready to lay down and under his power to lay down.”

The trial court ruled that Perelka’s standard-of-care testimony conflicted with the testimony of Dr. Ronald Washburn, plaintiff’s radiology expert. Washburn testified that a kyphotic patient should be placed on his side rather than his back when undergoing an MRI.

“However, neither the trial court nor defendant has explained why a conflict between experts renders either of their opinions inadmissible; no caselaw has been cited to support such a principle,” the appeals court opinion stated.

The panel also ruled that the “claimed lack of a scientific basis for Perelka’s opinion was also irrelevant because she was not rendering a scientific opinion.”

The trial court erred when it determined that there was no evidence to support Perelka’s opinion that the MRI technicians breached the standard of care, the panel ruled.

The decedent’s wife, Rita, testified he told her that “they pushed, manipulated him into position” during the MRI in a hurtful manner. The decedent’s statement and technician’s description of the action are sufficient to provide factual support for Perelka’s opinion, the panel ruled.

Appeals court judges rejected the defense argument that the “trial court’s decision to ignore the content of Rita’s testimony, even if erroneous, was harmless because the court could have excluded Rita’s testimony recounting her husband’s statements as hearsay.”

“Rita’s testimony about what George said to her was subject to the excited utterance hearsay exception — it was a statement concerning a startling event or condition, made while George was still under the stress of the event or condition,” the opinion stated.

As for causation, the panel agreed with the plaintiff that the trial court erred when it determined that the plaintiff had presented only speculative evidence.

“Plaintiff’s causation experts testified that the MRI technicians caused plaintiff’s injuries —either by causing the displaced fracture itself, or by displacing a non-displaced fracture,” the opinion stated. “Their testimony was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of causation.”