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Johnson v. Mountainside Hospital

Decided: March 12, 1990.

EDWARD W. JOHNSON, EXECUTOR OF THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF AURELIA A. JOHNSON, DECEASED, AND EDWARD W. JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT-CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
THE MOUNTAINSIDE HOSPITAL, A CORPORATION, JEFFREY TRAUSE, RESPIRATORY DISEASE ASSOCIATES, JACK H. DADAIN, BARRY J. WEBER, DR. VALLARIO, PURITAN-BENNETT A CORPORATION, AND JOHN DOE MANUFACTURING COMPANY, ROBERT ROE RETAIL COMPANY, ABC REPAIR COMPANY, DEF MAINTENANCE COMPANY AND JANE FLO, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND LOUIS MCDONALD, SUSAN L. SIENKIEWICZ, MARY DOWD, CAROL HOULIDAY LARKIN AND BENJAMIN SAFIRSTEIN, M.D., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS-CROSS-APPELLANTS



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.

Michels, Deighan and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Brochin, J.A.D.

Brochin

[239 NJSuper Page 317] Aurelia A. Johnson suffered from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. She was hospitalized on August 13, 1979 at Mountainside Hospital. Since she had trouble breathing, she was connected to a respirator by a tube connection placed in her trachea. On November 17, 1979, she was accidentally disconnected from the respirator. Serious brain damage resulted which ultimately caused her death.

Plaintiff Edward M. Johnson, who was Aurelia Johnson's husband, instituted this wrongful death and survivorship action. He named as defendants Mountainside Hospital, Puritan-Bennett Corp., which had manufactured her respirator, several physicians who were alleged to have been responsible for her injury and death, and several other parties who were denominated by fictitious names. That complaint was eventually dismissed because of plaintiff's failure to comply with discovery orders,*fn1 but it was ultimately reinstated following an appeal to this court and a hearing before the trial court on remand. See Johnson v. Mountainside Hosp., Resp. Disease Assoc., 199 N.J. Super. 114, 488 A.2d 1029 (App.Div.1985). Thereafter, plaintiff ultimately went to trial on his third amended complaint. In that complaint, plaintiff asserted claims against Mountainside Hospital, Puritan-Bennett Corp., four physicians and their professional corporation, the Hospital's director of cardiorespiratory services, his assistant, a respiratory therapist, two nurses, and various other defendants designated by fictitious names.

One of plaintiff's legal theories was that Mountainside Hospital was strictly liable in tort as a commercial lessor of the respirator equipment from which his wife had become disconnected and that it was not protected against that liability by the charitable immunity statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8. In advance of trial, the trial judge ruled that the Hospital was not liable to plaintiff under that legal theory.

Plaintiff settled its claim against Puritan-Bennett and the remainder of the case was tried to a jury. At the close of plaintiff's case, the judge dismissed the action against Dr. Benjamin Safirstein, the medical director of the Hospital's respiratory therapy department, Louis McDonald, a respiratory therapist who was the head of the respiratory therapy department,

and Jeffrey Trause, Mr. McDonald's assistant. The jury found that Puritan-Bennett was 80 percent negligent and Mountainside Hospital 20 percent. It awarded plaintiff $25,000 for decedent's pain and suffering and $456,250 for the pecuniary damage sustained by her survivors, and it returned verdicts of no cause for action in favor of all of the other defendants.

If Mountainside Hospital were liable for its 20 percent share of the total jury verdict, it would have been subject to a judgment for $96,250. However, because of the limit on its liability conferred by the charitable immunity statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8, the amount of the judgment against the Hospital was limited to $10,000.*fn2

On appeal, plaintiff alleges that Mountainside Hospital is not entitled to the charitable immunity defense and that the

defense itself is unconstitutional. His argument for the inapplicability of the charitable immunity defense is that plaintiff's decedent was not the beneficiary of charity because her care was paid for by medical insurance. His constitutional argument is that the charitable immunity legislation, at least as applied to hospitals, is special legislation and violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the federal constitution and the comparable protections of the New Jersey constitution.

We reject these arguments and hold that the charitable immunity legislation is constitutional and that Mountainside Hospital is entitled to rely on it to limit its liability to plaintiff to $10,000. The constitutionality of the charitable immunity legislation, which has been part of our statutory law for more than thirty years, is now well settled. See Edwards v. Our Lady Of Lourdes Hosp., 217 N.J. Super. 448, 526 A.2d 242 (App.Div.1987); Makar v. St. Nicholas etc. Church, 78 N.J. Super. 1, 3-8, 187 A.2d 353 (App.Div.1963).

We also disagree with plaintiff's contention that, because of medical insurance, his decedent was not "a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of" Mountainside Hospital, a "non-profit corporation." That argument, if valid, would exempt every plaintiff except the medically indigent from the bar of the charitable immunity legislation. The decided cases which have applied the charitable immunity statute in favor of non-profit hospitals, and of other types of non-profit corporations organized for other charitable purposes, have implicitly rejected that argument, and we now do so explicitly. Cf. Vitolo v. St. Peter's Church, 118 N.J. Super. 35, 37, 285 A.2d 570 (App.Div.), certif. den. 60 N.J. 285, 288 A.2d 27 (1972), where this court recognized that the fact of insurance does not change the impact of the immunity statute or confer additional rights upon an injured beneficiary. Although reimbursed by insurance and government programs for the cost of its services, non-profit hospitals continue to perform a vital, benevolent social function, and every user of such a hospital is a beneficiary of its works.

We also disagree with plaintiff's contention that his claim for relief against Mountainside Hospital was properly predicated upon a strict liability theory and, for that reason, the $10,000 limit on its liability was inapplicable. Cf. Brody v. Overlook Hospital, 121 N.J. Super. 299, 296 A.2d 668 (Law Div.1972), rev'd on other grounds, 127 N.J. Super. 331, 317 A.2d 392 (App.Div.1974), aff'd, 66 N.J. 448, 332 A.2d 596 (1975). Although there was evidence in the case showing that Mountainside Hospital charged a rental fee for the respirator, the trial judge held that the Hospital was in the business of providing health care to patients and therefore could not be treated as a lessor of equipment to whom strict legal liability applied. We agree. Our courts have refused to impose strict liability on health care providers. Brody v. Overlook Hospital, supra, 66 N.J. 448, 332 A.2d 596 (1975); Baptista v. Saint Barnabas Medical Center, 109 N.J. Super. 217, 262 A.2d 902 (App.Div.1970), aff'd o.b. 57 N.J. 167, 270 A.2d 409; Newmark v. Gimbel's, Inc., 54 N.J. 585, 258 A.2d 697 (1969); Magrine v. Krasnica, 94 N.J. Super. 228, 227 A.2d 539 (Cty.Ct.1967), aff'd, 100 N.J. Super. 223, 241 A.2d 637 (App.Div.1968), aff'd, 53 N.J. 259, 250 A.2d 129 (1969). In Feldman v. Lederle Laboratories, 97 N.J. 429, 442, 479 A.2d 374 (1984), the Supreme Court stated:

The policy of these cases is applicable to the present case and supports the trial judge's decision that plaintiff cannot prevail against the hospital on the basis of a theory of strict liability.

Defendants Jack H. Dadain, M.D., Barry J. Weber, M.D. and Frank T. Vallario, M.D., who were ...


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