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Betenbaugh v. Princeton Hospital

New Jersey Supreme Court


Decided: November 20, 1967.

HELEN L. BETENBAUGH, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
PRINCETON HOSPITAL, A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION, ELLWOOD W. GODFREY AND R. J. BELFORD, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS

On appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court, Appellate Division, where the following opinion was filed: PER CURIAM. This is an appeal from a judgment of involuntary dismissal entered at the close of plaintiffs' case in a medical malpractice action against a hospital and two doctors. The basis of the trial court's decision was that plaintiffs did not prove any damages causally related to defendants' failure to obtain adequate X-rays. We conclude from our study of the record that the trial court erred and plaintiffs should have a new trial. The critical evidence can be briefly summarized. On December 17, 1961 plaintiff Helen L. Betenbaugh (then Helen L. Reckenzaum), a college student, fell and injured the lower part of her back. She was taken immediately to the Princeton Hospital (defendant) where the lumbosacral area of her spine was X-rayed pursuant to instructions of the examining physician to X-ray "the sacrum". Dr. Belford (defendant), the attending general surgeon, read the "wet" plates and found no evidence of a fracture, and he so advised the patient. (We note that the doctor rendered a bill of $5 for his services which contained a legend "examination of sacral area and review of X-rays for possible fracture.") Dr. Godfrey (defendant), a radiologist and head of the Radiology Department at the hospital, confirmed that negative finding; the report of his department concluded that "multiple films of the sacrum show no evidence of fracture." When her physical pain did not subside, plaintiff consulted Dr. Tillotson, the family physician who, after discovering that the Princeton Hospital radiographs did not portray the entire lower portion of the spine, referred plaintiff to Dr. Bromberg, a specialist in radiology, for an X-ray examination which was made on January 26, 1962. The family doctor, upon receiving Dr. Bromberg's diagnosis of an existing fracture, modified his prescribed treatment and advised plaintiff to wear a lumbosacral garment, referred to as a brace. There is evidence that by March 26, 1962 the fracture was healed. In the opinion of Dr. Tillotson, if plaintiff's fracture had been diagnosed upon her examination at the Princeton Hospital, appropriate treatment could have been undertaken at an earlier date, the patient would have suffered less pain and she would have achieved a more speedy recovery. Dr. Bromberg testified that he X-rayed the "lumbosacral spine and sacral and coccyx" and that the left lateral projection showed a "well defined" impacted fracture of the fifth sacral segment. The doctor proffered testimony that it was customary when performing an X-ray examination of the sacrum to take at least two views, i.e., anterior-posterior and lateral. He also gave evidence as a medical expert that "from the standpoint of good adequate medical practice" an X-ray examination should picture the complete sacrum and that a failure in that regard would constitute a breach of the generally accepted standard of care. In discussing the Princeton Hospital films the witness pointed out that the pictures of the lateral view did not include the lower area of the sacrum which would have disclosed the fracture and, for that reason, he opined that there had been a failure to use that degree of care and skill required for an examination of the sacrum. The evidence produced on plaintiffs' behalf, when viewed in its most favorable light, sustains an inference that defendants were not free from negligence which proximately caused plaintiff to suffer damages. Nor does the record support the trial court's conclusion that plaintiff sustained no damages "as the result of the failure of the defendants to properly X-ray the fifth segment of the sacrum, at the Princeton Hospital." Where it is certain that some damage has resulted, mere uncertainty as to the amount thereof will not necessarily preclude the right of recovery. As stated in Jenkins v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Goldmann, Schettino and Haneman. For reversal -- None.

Per Curiam

[50 NJ Page 393]

The judgment is affirmed for the reason expressed in the opinion of the Appellate Division.

19671120


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