Panel Refuses to Toss Suit Over Crash Caused by Heart Attack

CINCINNATI (CN) – The Sixth Circuit on Friday granted additional discovery to a driver injured in a collision with a tractor trailer whose operator suffered a heart attack, refusing to dismiss the case under Ohio’s medical emergency doctrine.

The case was argued last December, and the hearing before the Cincinnati-based appeals court focused on whether the fatal heart attack sustained by Richard Thompson Jr. was imminent, even though he had been certified to return to work following previous heart attacks.

The Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, home of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (AP Photo/Dan Sewell)

Paul Cline, the driver injured when Thompson’s semi crossed the center line, deposed a single corporate representative from Dart Transit, Thompson’ employer, but petitioned the district court for additional discovery one day before the court’s deadline.

U.S. District Judge John Adams, a George W. Bush appointee, denied Cline’s request and dismissed the case after he ruled that Ohio’s medical emergency doctrine barred all of Cline’s claims.

In Friday’s ruling, however, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Griffin, also a George W. Bush appointee, sided with Cline and ordered the lower court to allow for additional discovery.

Dart Transit had argued that Cline’s request – which came just one day before the end of the 90-day discovery period – was the result of his failure to diligently pursue discovery, but Judge Griffin disagreed.

“According to Dart,” Griffin wrote, “its corporate representative was not available until toward the end of the discovery period – August 1-3, 2018. Therefore, the deposition’s occurrence in the later part of the discovery period was not the result of plaintiffs being dilatory.”

He continued, “In plaintiffs’ motion, they sought permission to conduct discovery based on information obtained only about two weeks earlier during the deposition of Dart’s corporate representative. As discussed above, Dart – not plaintiffs – caused that deposition to occur towards the end of the discovery period.”

Griffin also sympathized with Cline’s efforts to obtain medical records from Thompson’s estate, which only obtained legal counsel immediately prior to the close of the discovery period.

“Plaintiffs had understood the district court to indicate – on the record – that it would have been unethical for plaintiffs to take discovery from the estate while it was unrepresented,” the ruling states. “The estate had only just recently obtained counsel at the end of the discovery period, and plaintiffs were waiting for the district court to rule on their August 23, 2018 motion to extend and expand discovery. Therefore, it was not dilatory to seek permission … to conduct that discovery.”

Dart argued that even if Cline was allowed to conduct additional discovery, it would not change the outcome of the case, which was initially dismissed under Ohio’s sudden medical emergency doctrine. Griffin, however, disagreed.

The judge noted that if the medical records sought by Cline invalidate the medical release granted to Thompson before his return to work, the heart attack would be considered foreseeable under Ohio law and the emergency doctrine would no longer apply.

“Because the crux of the Dart’s unforeseeability argument was Thompson’s certification to return to driving and, implicitly, the absence of an intervening heart attack, discovery on this subject might well have changed the result below,” Griffin wrote.

While the case will be remanded to the lower court, the panel rejected Cline’s request for judicial reassignment, despite claims of impartiality by Judge Adams.

“We believe that, consistent with the directions in this opinion, the lower court will not rely on any preconceived notion it had of the merits of this case, will allow the parties to proceed with discovery in a reasonable fashion, and will consider any new evidence fairly and impartially,” the ruling states.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jane Stranch and Bernice Donald, both of whom were appointed by Barack Obama, joined Griffin on the panel.

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