Stafford v. Burns (CA1 11/29/16)

The court manages to address questions of emergency medical standard of care and “reasonable” offers of judgment by taking liberties with the question of jurisdiction.

[LATER NOTE, January 17, 2017: The court today re-issued this opinion. As usual, it gave no explanation of why it had done so. What’s the difference between the old opinion and the new? The new one deletes the part about jurisdiction, cites no basis for its jurisdiction, yet treats the matter as an appeal. Did the court decide that it was wrong about not having jurisdiction? If so, why? And by what procedure, the court having last month denied a Motion for Reconsideration? Or did it decide that it was right about jurisdiction but wrong about treating this as a special action and that the way to solve that problem was to sweep it under the rug? Does this have something to do with the pending Petition for Review? And does no one anywhere in the court feel any responsibility to explain conflicting opinions? The answer to the last question is obvious, the answers to the rest mysterious. But for analysis of the opinion as it now stands, read the next paragraph but skip the following two and the last.]

Plaintiffs’ son  died of a methadone overdose. He had been evaluated and released from the ER but was found dead the next day. Plaintiffs sued the doctor who released him. The jury found for Defendant; Plaintiffs appeal.

The Court of Appeals first announces that it has no jurisdiction. Plaintiffs had filed motions for new trial and for relief from judgment; the trial court denied the first by signed order but denied the second in an unsigned minute entry. Since that left the relief-from-judgment issues dangling the Court of Appeals kicked the case back to the trial court to get a signed order but for some reason one was never entered. The opinion doesn’t explain why not, nor how the case got back up without one.

But the court then decides to treat the matter as a special action because it raises “issues of first impression and statewide importance likely to recur.” This is startling. The court has discretion to do this but uses it in special situations, as when tangled procedure interferes with the ability to appeal. To use it in a fairly typical failure-to-get-a-signature situation lets the exception destroy the rule. But the court does not want “to elevate form over substance.” So now jurisdiction is just a matter of form? “Additionally,” the court adds, “ were we to dismiss the appeal, nothing that may occur in the trial court would likely alter the disposition of the issues raised.” What does that mean? What is going to occur in the trial court (the opinion cites a case in which some issues had not been tried and could be raised again)? If anything could possibly “alter the disposition” – much less when things are merely not “likely” to do so — then why review the case now?

The first issue that the court finds it absolutely necessary to decide for posterity is whether under the facts of this case A.R.S. 12-572 applies. This sets a clear-and-convincing standard for medical providers acting “in compliance with the [federal] Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act.” Plaintiffs argued that it only applies until the patient has been either evaluated as not being an emergency or stabilized sufficiently for transfer. The court says: “This sort of interpretation is not practical in the context of . . . emergency medical care. The evaluation and treatment . . . is necessarily a fluid process . . . particularly . . . where the condition qualifies as an emergency under EMTALA – manifesting through acute symptoms, severe pain, and the risk of serious dysfunction or bodily impairment.” “We hold . . . 12-572A applies whenever the acts or omissions . . . were provided in the course of evaluating and treating a patient in a hospital emergency room.”

After disposing briefly of several fact- and case-specific issues the court gets to the other issue it wanted to write about. Defendant had made a $10,000 offer of judgment. Plaintiffs, citing a Seventh Circuit case interpreting the federal rule, wanted this disregarded because it was “no-risk” offer not “at least arguably reasonable . . . compared to the lawsuit’s probable damages.” But the Seventh Circuit holding was specifically limited to Title VII cases and was based on based on federal civil rights policy. The Arizona rule, which allows either side to make offers, is intended to promote settlement and its provisions are “mandatory and punitive.” The rule contains no “reasonableness” requirement. Inferring one would increase litigation by adding a dispute about reasonableness to every case in which an offer is made.

So the court accepts jurisdiction and denies relief. And that’s the kicker. The court took this case not because it had appellate  jurisdiction and not because doing justice for these parties required some form of review. It did so simply to announce law on a couple of issues it found amusing. By doing so it establishes that it can use the shoehorn of “special action “ to make jurisdiction a matter of discretion.

(Opinion: Stafford v. Burns )