Injured Driver Fights Ohio Exception to Negligence Cases

CINCINNATI (CN) – A driver injured in a collision with a tractor trailer whose operator suffered a fatal heart attack urged the Sixth Circuit on Tuesday to revive his case, which a federal judge found barred under Ohio’s medical emergency doctrine.

The Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, home of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Paul Cline was injured in December 2016 when Richard Thompson Jr.’s commercial vehicle crossed a highway median and collided with Cline’s vehicle after Thompson had a heart attack.

Although Thompson had previously suffered a heart attack four months prior, he had been certified by an outside medical professional after the incident and was properly licensed to operate his vehicle at the time of the collision.

Cline sued Thompson and his employer, Dart Transit, in 2018, but U.S. District Judge John Adams dismissed the case after ruling Ohio’s sudden medical emergency doctrine barred all of Cline’s claims.

Adams, a George W. Bush appointee, found no evidence that Thompson’s heart attack was imminent. The judge also agreed with Dart’s argument that if it had refused to accept the medical certification, Thompson could have sued it for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In his opinion, Adams cited Boyd v. Helman, a case from the Ohio appellate courts in which a 77-year-old driver with several risk factors caused a crash but had a negligence claim dismissed under the medical emergency doctrine.

The appellate court in Boyd ruled that although the driver “may have known that he had risk factors for heart disease, neither he nor anyone else could predict that a myocardial infarction was imminent.”

Cline argued that further discovery was needed and Thompson may have suffered a third heart attack in between those sustained in August and December of that year, but Adams rejected the argument as “vague and tortured.”

Attorney Joshua Leizerman argued on behalf of Cline on Tuesday, urging the Sixth Circuit panel to remand the case to allow for further discovery.

Leizerman said his client was unable to review any of Thompson’s medical records, which prevented him from presenting a proper defense to the sudden medical emergency doctrine.

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Griffin, a George W. Bush appointee, asked if Cline was able to obtain a copy of the coroner’s report, which included a notation that Thompson had suffered a heart attack “3+” weeks prior to the accident.

Leizerman said he had, and that the “3+” notation was crucial to his client’s belief that Thompson had suffered another heart attack that should have prevented him from driving and would have required him to obtain another medical certification.

The attorney argued that further discovery would help elaborate on the meaning of the notation.

Attorney Chris Cotter argued on behalf of Dart Transit. He pointed out to the panel that Cline and his attorneys agreed to a 90-day discovery schedule in the summer of 2016 and failed to make a request for additional discovery until one day before the deadline.

Cotter said Cline did not attach any memorandum of support or legal arguments to the request and did not specifically ask the district court for Thompson’s medical records.

U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald, a Barack Obama appointee, told Cotter his argument sounded like “semantics” based on the fact that Cline’s request was made before the deadline.

Donald also speculated that Dart may have manipulated the discovery process by refusing to make its representative available for a deposition until just over two weeks before the deadline.

Griffin echoed his colleague’s sentiments and said the lower court’s decision to allow a single deposition to one employee of the company was “really extraordinary.”

Griffin’s remarks about the district court’s decision-making dovetailed with a claim of judicial bias made by Leizerman, who argued the lower court “had made up its mind” before the case got off the ground.

Leizerman said several of the court’s decisions “seemed orchestrated to prevent us from prosecuting our case,” and that Judge Adams insinuated Leizerman and his client were only interested in the “deep pockets” of Dart Transit.

The attorney said he told his client before the case began that they would lose and be forced to make an appeal.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s arguments, Griffin asked both attorneys if mediation might be useful in solving the dispute, but neither Leizerman nor Cotter thought it would help.

Leizerman said the parties are “entrenched” in their positions, while Cotter told the panel his opposition’s request for millions of dollars in damages made a settlement unlikely.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Stranch, another Obama appointee, rounded out the panel.

No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.

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