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Velazquez v. Jiminez

May 29, 2002

CONOR VELAZQUEZ, AN INFANT BY HIS MOTHER AND NATURAL GUARDIAN, CHARMAINE VELAZQUEZ, CHARMAINE VELAZQUEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CONOR VELAZQUEZ, AND JOSE VELAZQUEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF CONOR VELAZQUEZ, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
TERESA JIMINEZ, M.D., ST. PETER'S MEDICAL CENTER, ELLEN MAAK, R.N., JEANINE HEALY, R.N., AND JOHN DOES, M.D., DEFENDANTS, AND ANGELA C. RANZINI, M.D., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 336 N.J. Super. 10 (2000).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court considers an issue of first impression in which it must decide whether New Jersey's Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1, can be invoked to immunize a hospital physician who assists a patient at the hospital during a medical emergency.

Charmaine Velazquez was a patient at St. Peter's Medical Center (the Medical Center) for the purpose of delivering a baby. Dr. Teresa Jiminez was her attending physician. Complications occurred during the course of the delivery because Mrs. Velazquez's baby was suffering from bilateral shoulder dystocia (both of his shoulders were lodged against his mother's public bone). After delivering the baby's head, Dr. Jiminez was unable to deliver the rest of the baby's body. She then called for assistance, and Dr. Angela Ranzini responded.

Dr. Ranzini had no prior relationship with or connection to Mrs. Velazquez. Dr. Ranzini was an Assistant Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), assigned to the Maternal Fetal Care Unit (MFCU) at the Medical Center. She specializes in maternal fetal medicine and was responsible both for attending to high-risk patients in the MFCU and for supervising resident physicians who cared for their own UMDNJ clinical patients at the Medical Center. Mrs. Velazquez was neither an MFCU nor a clinical patient. Rather, she was the patient of Dr. Jininez, an attending physician with staff privileges at the Medical Center.

After unsuccessfully attempting to complete the delivery vaginally, Dr. Ranzini assisted in preparing Mrs. Velazquez and the baby (who was, by virtue of his position, at risk of suffering from a loss of oxygen) for an emergency Caesarean section. The baby, Conor, ultimately was born severely brain damaged, spent his life in a dependent state and died of pneumonia before reaching the age of three.

In July 1994, Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez filed suit against the Medical Center and its staff members, and against Dr. Jiminez, Dr. Ranzini, and others for their negligence during Conor's delivery.

Before trial, Dr. Jiminez, the Medical Center, and other defendants settled with Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez, leaving only Dr. Ranzini as a defendant. Dr. Ranzini then moved for summary judgment claiming immunity under the Good Samaritan Act. The trial court denied the motion as a matter of law, holding that the Act does not immunize physicians responding to emergencies within a hospital. Dr. Ranzini alone went to trial.

At trial, Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez's experts testified that Dr. Ranzini deviated from the standard of care. Dr. Ranzini's experts testified that her conduct conformed to all applicable medical standards and that Conor's condition resulted from the negligence of Dr. Jiminez. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez and assigned three percent liability to Dr. Ranzini. The trial court, on its own, entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) in favor of Dr. Ranzini, holding that her liability could not be regarded as a substantial factor in the harm that resulted to Conor. In so ruling, the trial court reiterated that the Good Samaritan Act did not operate to insulate Dr. Ranzini from suit.

Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez appealed, challenging the j.n.o.v., among other trial errors. Dr. Ranzini cross-appealed from the trial court's ruling that the Good Samaritan Act did not immunize her from suit. In her appeal, Dr. Ranzini maintained that the location of the emergency is of no consequence. Rather, she maintained that a physician is immunized under the Act so long as he or she acts in the absence of a duty to do so. She further contended that the weight of out-of-state authority supported her interpretation, which she claimed would encourage physicians to assist in a hospital emergency. Mr. and Mrs. Velazquez maintained that Dr. Ranzini's construction of the Act was inconsistent with its plain meaning and with the legislative purpose. In a reported opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the j.n.o.v. and rejected

Dr. Ranzini's cross-appeal on the ground that, as a matter of law, the Good Samaritan Act does not apply to physicians working within a hospital.

The Supreme Court granted Dr. Ranzini's petition for certification regarding the applicability of the Good Samaritan Act to emergencies involving a patient occurring within a hospital.

HELD: New Jersey's Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1, encompasses only those situations in which a physician or other volunteer comes, by chance, upon a victim who requires immediate emergency medical care, at a location compromised by lack of adequate facilities, equipment, expertise, sanitation and staff, and does not provide immunity to a hospital physician who assists a patient at the hospital during a medical emergency.

1. Under the common law, a bystander had no duty to provide affirmative aid to an injured person, even if he or she had the ability to do so. However, once a bystander endeavored to help, the common law recognized a duty to do so reasonably, and the volunteer could be held liable for injuries caused by his or her negligent assistance. (pp. 7-9)

2. The goal of Good Samaritan legislation is to encourage the rendering of medical care to those who need it but otherwise might not receive it, by persons who come upon such victims by chance, without the accoutrements provided in a medical facility, including expertise, assistance, sanitation, or equipment. (pp. 9-12)

3. Although all fifty states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of Good Samaritan legislation, the legislation of no two states are alike due, in part, to disparate policies behind their enactment. The country's Good Samaritan statutes fall into three categories: those that expressly exclude hospital care; those that expressly include hospital care; and those, like New Jersey's, that contain no explicit provision one way or the other. (pp. 12-19)

4. The few judicial decisions interpreting the category of statutes that neither expressly excludes nor expressly includes in- hospital emergency medical care are in equipoise, the outcome based, in great measure, on whether the statutes were broadly or narrowly interpreted. (pp. 19-20)

5. If the language of a legislative enactment is clear, the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms. When a statute is subject to more than one plausible reading, the role of the courts is to effectuate the legislative intent in light of the language used and the objectives sought to be achieved. (pp. 21-22)

6. A statute enacted in derogation of the common law must be construed narrowly and any doubt about its meaning should resolved in favor of the effect that makes the least rather than the most change in the common law. Coincident with that interpretative canon is New Jersey's tradition of giving narrow range to statutes granting immunity from tort liability because they leave unredressed injury and loss resulting from wrongful conduct. (pp. 22-23)

7. In its present form, New Jersey's Good Samaritan statute immunizes any Good Samaritan who renders emergency care at the scene of an accident or emergency to the victim, or while transporting the victim to a hospital or other facility where treatment or care is to be rendered. (pp. 23-24)

8. Had the Legislature intended the immunity of the Act to be locationally unlimited as urged by Dr. Ranzini, it simply could have said so, and the Legislature's use of the limiting language, "at the scene of an emergency," evidences an intent to limit the immunity provided by the Good Samaritan statute. Thus, the "scene of an accident or emergency" reasonably should be understood to incorporate only those locations at which the provision of adequate and necessary medical care is compromised by the existing conditions. This narrow interpretation does the least violence to the common law right to institute tort actions against those whose negligence injures them. (pp. 24-28)

9. Good Samaritan immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1 encompasses only those situations in which a physician (or other volunteer) comes, by chance, upon a victim who requires immediate emergency medical care, at a location compromised by lack of adequate facilities, equipment, expertise, sanitation and staff. A hospital or medical center does not qualify under the terms of the Good Samaritan Act in its present form. (pp. 29-30)

10. The narrow holding in this case does not affect those common law principles that govern the conduct of professionals in a hospital setting, but rather merely carries out the Legislature's intent to carve out, from the ordinary rules of tort liability, a class of volunteers that ministers to victims suffering through the first critical moments after an unexpected events, such as a roadside accident, in a location at which facilities, staff, equipment, sanitation or expertise are limited. (pp. 30-32)

11. Because Dr. Ranzini rendered aid to Mrs. Velazquez in a fully equipped and staffed hospital to which Mrs. Velazquez had been admitted for the purpose of receiving medical care, the Good Samaritan Act did not immunize her from suit.

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE VERNIERO has filed a separate dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE COLEMAN joins. Justice Verniero believes that under that statute as written, a health-care professional in a hospital who does not otherwise have a duty to act is entitled to the same Good Samaritan protections as any other person. In his view, the proper disposition would have been to remand the matter to the Law Division to evaluate whether any physician agreements, hospital protocols, or regulations require a broad imposition of a duty in these circumstances. Absent such a remand, Justice Verniero would interpret the Good Samaritan Act consistent with what he discerns as the legislative purpose - to ensure that as many persons as possible respond to a patient's emergent needs.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN, LaVECCHIA, and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO has filed a separate dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE COLEMAN joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered ...


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