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Bartlett v. Coppe

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

May 16, 2017

Phil Bartlett et al.
Dr. David Coppe.

         Washington County Superior Court WC 13-639, Associate Justice Netti C. Vogel

          For Plaintiff: Phil B. Bartlett, Pro Se Natalie Bartlett, Pro Se

          For Defendant: Andrea L. Merolla-Simister, Esq. Michael G. Sarli, Esq.

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


          William P. Robinson, Associate Justice

         The plaintiffs, Phil and Natalie Bartlett, appeal pro se from the Superior Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Dr. David Coppe, in this medical malpractice action. This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on April 5, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After a close review of the record and careful consideration of the parties' arguments (both written and oral), we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that this appeal may be decided at this time.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         On September 16, 2014, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, in which they contended that Mr. Bartlett had been treated on a weekly basis by defendant for a "cellulitis ulcer" at the South County Hospital Wound Care Center between February 2, 2012 and June 21, 2012. The amended complaint alleged that defendant breached the standard of care and was "negligent during the period of treatment in failure to apply certain wound evaluation practices to evaluate the lack of progress of ulcer healing commonly used by doctors providing treatment for this type of condition." The amended complaint went on to allege that defendant's "practices" failed to diagnose a "foot bone infection" that developed and that required "right foot bone amputation on July 12, 2012." The plaintiffs further alleged in their amended complaint that the "prolonged period of treatment and necessity of amputation resulted in [Mr. Bartlett's] inability to pursue income production, significant unnecessary medical expenditures and prolonged period of physical inactivity for a seventy five year old with significant physical mobility problems." The amended complaint also included an allegation that, as a result of Dr. Coppe's alleged negligence, Mrs. Bartlett was required to care for her husband's wound after the amputation, drive her husband to doctor's appointments, and take full responsibility for household duties.

         During the course of discovery, plaintiffs answered one of defendant's interrogatories stating that they "[did] not plan or expect to use the services of an expert to testify in this complaint." However, after a lengthy discovery period, in a letter to defense counsel dated December 16, 2015, plaintiffs identified a registered nurse, Lisa M. Burke, MSN, RN, CWOCN, as their proposed expert witness. Nurse Burke is identified, in the documents attached to the December 16 letter, as a "Certified Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurse." On March 25, 2016, defendant filed a motion to preclude plaintiffs from relying upon an expert witness at trial, contending that plaintiffs failed to meet a discovery deadline with respect to the disclosure of their expert witness and further contending that "the expert disclosed by [plaintiffs], Lisa Burke, MSN, RN, CWOCN does not possess the necessary qualifications to render opinions regarding the applicable standard of care for a physician and surgeon." On April 1, 2016, a justice of the Superior Court heard argument[1] on defendant's motion. Following that hearing, the Court issued an order precluding plaintiffs from relying on Nurse Burke as an expert because she "lacked the necessary qualifications to provide opinions in this case relative to [plaintiffs'] allegations of medical negligence against the Defendant, a physician and surgeon." The order further instructed plaintiffs to "disclose qualified expert(s) * * * on or before May 1, 2016" or be precluded from relying on expert witnesses in the case. The plaintiffs failed to meet that May 1, 2016 deadline. After a scheduling conference on May 6, 2016, the same Superior Court justice issued a "Supplemental Scheduling Order, " stating that the Court had "sua sponte reconsidered its prior ruling" with respect to Nurse Burke and had affirmed that ruling. The order further noted that plaintiffs had "indicated that they had not contacted or retained any physician(s) to serve on their behalf as expert(s) in this case and further had no intention to do so[.]" Accordingly, the hearing justice precluded plaintiffs from relying on expert witness testimony in the case.

          The defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment based on the principle that expert testimony in a medical malpractice case is required to establish the standard of care, deviation from the standard of care, and proximate cause. On June 20, 2016, plaintiffs filed an objection to the hearing justice's "decision to disqualify Lisa M. Burke as the plaintiff's expert witness." After a hearing on June 24, 2016, defendant's motion for summary judgment was granted, and the hearing justice stated that any other pending motions were "deemed moot." The plaintiffs have appealed from that ruling.


         Issues ...

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