Alabama Supreme Court’s Due-Diligence Ruling Highlights Importance of Properly Identifying Negligent Parties

An August decision by the Alabama Supreme Court highlights the importance of properly identifying negligent parties in a personal injury lawsuit.

A thorough understanding of statute-of-limitations and other matters of law is equally critical. Your Montgomery personal injury attorney will often face off with the experienced legal counsel hired by insurance carriers, doctors and hospitals, where the focus is avoiding responsibility, limiting payouts and, when all else fails, endless delay.Dulin v. Northeast Alabama Regional Med. Ctr. is a case that has already made it to the state Supreme Court and back, despite the fact that it’s not yet made it to trial.

After being admitted to the hospital in May 2005 for “crush injuries to the chest,” George Dulin’s tracheostomy tube became dislodged during a bath administered by the nursing staff. As a result, Dulin suffered from oxygen deprivation for an undetermined period of time. A medical malpractice case ensued, wherein Dulin and his wife sued the Center and 17 fictitiously named defendants (John Doe, Jane Doe, these are placeholders a plaintiff’s attorney may use when filing a lawsuit in cases where the identities of the defendants — in this case, doctors, nurses and hospital staff — are unknown or unconfirmed).

Dulin’s wife reportedly received a hospital review of the case a month after the incident. The file contained paperwork that purported to identify eight members of the Code Team involved in Dulin’s care. When the lawsuit was later amended to include the names of defendants, three members of the team petitioned Calhoun Circuit Court for summary judgment.

Summary judgment requests the judge rule in favor of a party before trial or before all of the facts of a case are presented– in this case by dismissing the lawsuit. In this case, the defendants raised a statute of limitations defense, arguing the amended version of the suit (which named them) was filed more than two years after the 2005 incident. They also argued the Dulins failed to exercise due-diligence in learning the nurses’ identities.

However, the motion was denied by the trial court, prompting the nurses to file a writ of mandamus with the Alabama Supreme Court. A writ of mandamus essentially requests a review of a trial court’s actions before the underlying matter has been settled. Latin for “we command,” it seeks an order from a superior court requiring a subordinate court to take action (or refrain from action) as a matter of law.

Upon review of this case, the state Supreme Court found the law requires “ordinary” due diligence, not “extraordinary.” As such,┬áthe court could not find that the Dulins failed the due-diligence test based on the prompt acquisition of the medical records, and the promptness of the substitution of those names in the lawsuit. As a result, the application for writ of mandamus was denied and the case was sent back to the trial court for additional proceedings.

You’ll note we are 7 years down the road from the time of this incident. Given just the rudimentary facts of the case as outlined in the high court’s opinion, it would seem the Dulins have a solid case for damages. The hospital and its insurers understand culpability is almost a foregone conclusion. This case will likely boil down to fiscal calculations, including cost of long-term care, calculation of career lost wages and other damages.

When choosing a personal injury or wrongful death law firm in Alabama, experience matters. You also need a firm with the resources to fight back, and to make sure your legal rights are protected at each stage of the process.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a personal injury attorney today.

Additional Resources

Alabama Work Zones and Summer Risks for Traffic Accidents, Alabama Injury Lawyer Blog, August 9, 2012

Faulty Warning System Reportedly Causes Railroad Crossing Accident in Huntsville, Alabama Injury Lawyer Blog, July 23, 2012

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