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Caffey v. Lees

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 9, 2017

Joseph Caffey et al.
v.
Christopher Lees.

         Providence County Superior Court (PM 15-5649) Jeffrey A. Lanphear Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs George T. Gilson, Esq.

          For Defendant Ronald J. Resmini, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Gilbert V. Indeglia Associate Justice

         Christopher Lees (Lees) appeals from the entry of judgment vacating an arbitration award in his favor, and instead, finding for Joseph Caffey[1](Caffey) and Omni Development Corporation.[2] This matter came before the Supreme Court on December 7, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised should not be summarily decided. After considering the arguments set forth in the parties' memoranda and at oral argument, we are convinced that cause has not been shown. Thus, further argument or briefing is not required to decide this matter. For the reasons outlined below, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         On May 28, 2011, Caffey[3] lost consciousness while operating his vehicle due to health complications, causing an automobile accident in Seekonk, Massachusetts. Lees was a passenger in the car that Caffey rear-ended. Lees alleged that he suffered constant back issues that ultimately required surgery as a result of that accident. The parties attempted to resolve the matter through arbitration.

         On February 4, 2014, the parties executed a binding arbitration agreement that stipulated to a high/low award starting at $9, 000 and capped at $160, 000 with no interest.[4] The parties agreed to waive their rights to a jury trial and "any appeals of the * * * arbitration hearing to the extent permitted by Rhode Island law * * *." The agreement provided that it would be "governed by, construed and enforced in accordance with the laws of the State [sic] of Massachusetts, " and contemplated that any petitions relating to the arbitration would be filed in accordance with the Rhode Island Arbitration Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 3 of title 10.

         Each side presented evidence to an arbitrator, who had been agreed upon by the parties, at a two-day arbitration hearing on November 25, 2014 and February 4, 2015. During the arbitration, Caffey contested both liability and damages. Caffey argued that the accident was not the proximate cause of Lees' back injury for which he required surgery because Lees initially suffered a back injury ten years prior to the accident. Doctor Mark Palumbo had performed back surgery on Lees in both 2001 and 2009. Lees stated that he saw Dr. Palumbo seventeen days before the accident and, at that time, Dr. Palumbo noted that he saw no indication that Lees needed further surgery. After returning to work following the accident, Lees claimed that he started to feel pain in his lower back and left leg. Palumbo performed another back surgery on Lees on September 19, 2011, nearly four months after the accident.

         At the November 25, 2014 hearing, Lees presented an affidavit from Dr. Palumbo pursuant to Rhode Island law that was dated November 7, 2013, which stated that the accident "exacerbated and/or worsened" Lees' "condition" and the "services rendered" were "proximately caused" by the accident. In response, Caffey sought to depose Dr. Palumbo. Lees then withdrew the affidavit. Subsequently, Lees offered a second affidavit to replace the first one, this time pursuant to Massachusetts law, signed on August 4, 2014, in which Dr. Palumbo also asserted that a causal relationship existed between the accident and the surgery. Caffey's objection to this affidavit was sustained.[5]

         On January 2, 2015, Lees' attorney sent a third affidavit to the arbitrator, [6] which Dr. Palumbo had signed on December 30, 2014, again concluding that there was a causal relationship between the injury that required surgery and the collision. Caffey's attorney was not informed of this third affidavit submitted to the arbitrator until the February 4, 2015 arbitration hearing.

         In response to the third affidavit, Dr. Palumbo was deposed in June 2015. It was at this deposition that Caffey first learned of a January 24, 2012 letter from Dr. Palumbo to Lees' counsel indicating that he did not connect Lees' surgery to the accident. Specifically, he wrote that he was "not able to causally relate [Lees'] * * * recently performed operation to the incident ...


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