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Geiss v. Target Corporation

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 30, 2013

SANDRA GEISS and ROBERT GEISS h/w, Plaintiffs,
v.
TARGET CORPORATION and/or TARGET CORPORATION OF MINNESOTA, JOHN DOES 1-5 (fictitious persons) and ABC CORPS 1-5 (fictitious corporations), Defendants/Third Party Plaintiff(s),
v.
VIRTUA MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, VIRTUA MEMORIAL HOSPITAL — MT. HOLLY, VIRTUA WEST, JOHN DOES 1-10 (names unknown) and ABC CORPS 1-10 (names unknown), Third Party Defendant(s)

OPINION

ROBERT B. KUGLER, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon the motion of Target Corporation ("Target") for partial summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Robert Geiss ("Plaintiffs"). Virtua Memorial Hospital ("Virtua"), a third party defendant in this case, also now moves for summary judgment. For the reasons expressed herein, Target's motion for summary judgment is DENIED. However, Virtua's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

According to Plaintiffs, this matter arises out of a fall that Plaintiff Sandra Geiss sustained at a Target store in Burlington, New Jersey. Because Plaintiff's medical history and post-fall treatment are relevant to the conflicting theories of causation advanced by both parties, the Court will provide a detailed background to this case. Although the Court presents a composite of facts from Plaintiffs, Target, and Virtua, the Court will construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving parties, as it must at this stage in the litigation.

In January 2006, Plaintiff underwent knee replacement surgery in which her right knee joint was removed and replaced with a prosthetic component. Target's Mot. Summ. J., Ex. P-1 at 1. Plaintiff alleges that on July 25, 2007, she tripped over an uneven rug while passing through the entrance of the Burlington, N.J. Target store, landing on her stomach and knees. Id., Ex. B at 2; Target's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("SUMF"), ¶2. Plaintiff did not experience immediate pain on the day of her fall, but days later developed increasing pain in her right knee and required a cane and walker to ambulate. Id., Ex. T at 33-40. On August 2, 2012, Plaintiff visited her primary care physician, Dr. Chatyrka, complaining of right knee pain. Target's SUMF, ¶3. Dr. Chatyrka determined that Plaintiff was suffering from sciatica and recommended that she obtain an X-ray of her right knee. Target's Mot. Summ. J., Ex. C. The X-ray indicated that the prosthetic components were properly positioned and undamaged, but also revealed a fluid collection of unknown origin. Id., Ex. D.

On August 17, 2012, Dr. Schoifet, the orthopedic surgeon who performed Plaintiff's knee replacement in 2006, examined Plaintiff's knee. Id., Ex. E. Dr. Schoifet noted Plaintiff's complaints of increasing knee pain, but found that Plaintiff had no instability in her knee and confirmed that the X-ray demonstrated good positioning of the prosthetic components. Id .; Target's SUMF, ¶5-6. He ultimately concluded that Plaintiff suffered a right knee contusion as a result of her fall. Id.

On August 29, 2012, Plaintiff Sandra Geiss presented to Virtual Memorial Hospital complaining of "back pain, leg pain, numbness, pain radiating from back into legs and extreme pain when ambulating." Pls.' Supplemental Statement of Disputed Material Facts ("SDMF"), ¶7. A few hours after Plaintiff's arrival, tests revealed that Plaintiff had an elevated white blood cell count, elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar, and a high temperature. Target's Mot. Summ. J. at 4; see also Ex. F at 6-8. Soon thereafter, Plaintiff was diagnosed with hypoxia and pneumonia. Id., Ex. F at 9. Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital, and then to the Intensive Care Unit, where she was intubated. Id., Ex. I at 2. Blood cultures also revealed that Plaintiff had MSSA (Methicillin-Sensitive Staphylococcus Aureus), a bacterial infection. Id . Plaintiff spent some time in the ICU in order to receive treatment for her various ailments and to stabilize her condition. See Pls.' Opp'n, Ex. A at 42-43. Dr. Lee does not recall exactly how long Plaintiff remained in the ICU.[1] Id. at 42-43.

Much of the controversy in this case surrounds an "event" which allegedly occurred during Plaintiff's hospitalization. On September 25, 2007, an X-ray of Plaintiff's right knee revealed that her previously intact right knee prosthesis had subluxed (dislocated) by 3cm. Target's Mot. Summ. J., Ex. J. Plaintiff underwent emergency repair surgery on September 26, 2007, while her immune system was still compromised from the treatment of her other ailments. Id., Ex. Q at 99-100. Despite the repair, Plaintiff subsequently developed an infection in her right knee requiring further treatment. Target's SUMF, ¶32. The infection persisted, which required doctors to remove the prosthesis and insert an antibiotic spacer. Id. at ¶33. Ultimately, Dr. Schoifet had to perform a "right knee arthrodesis, " or fusion of Plaintiff's right knee. Id. at ¶34. Plaintiff's knee fusion has caused her significant pain, led to difficulty walking, and altered the range of activities in which she can participate. Dep. of Sandra Geiss at 90-94.

Although the subluxation was discovered on September 25, 2007, Plaintiff has no memory as to when or how it occurred. Target's Mot. Summ. J., Ex. T at 56-57. According to Plaintiff's expert, Dr. Gleimer, this subluxation occurred at some point while Plaintiff was hospitalized, but he cannot pinpoint a specific event, place or date. Id., Ex. P-1 at 3. He does note, however, that the prosthetic is inherently stable and would not sublux on its own. Id . This confusion is enhanced due to a number of missing medical records. Specifically, Virtua cannot locate progress notes from August 29, 2007 to September 14, 2007, physician orders from September 4, 2007 to September 17, 2007, medical administration records from September 4, 2007 to September 19, 2007, and flow records from September 14, 2007, September 18, 2007 and October 3, 2007. Target's SUMF, ¶35. The Custodian of Records for Virtua, Jennfier Raio, attributes the loss of the records to human error. Virtua's Mot. Summ. J., Ex. D at 64-65.

On the basis of these events, Plaintiffs filed suit against Target on March 26, 2009 in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Burlington County. In the Complaint, Plaintiffs assert claims against Target for negligence and loss of consortium on behalf of Plaintiff Robert Geiss. Target was served on April 6, 2009. Within one month, Target properly moved the matter to this Court. On July 29, 2010, Target impleaded Virtua as a third party defendant in the case. In the Third Party Complaint, Target contends that Plaintiff's knee subluxation constitutes a superseding, intervening cause and that any injuries resulting therefrom are due solely to Virtua's negligence. Target seeks contribution and indemnification from Virtua for any damages for which Target may be liable to Plaintiffs in the underlying suit. Target's Third Party Compl., ¶11. Target also claims that it has been prejudiced by Virtua's failure to preserve all of Plaintiff's medical records and asserts a tort action for careless, negligent, and/or intentional spoliation of evidence, seeking contribution and/or indemnification as a remedy. Id. at 3-4.

Both Virtua and Target now move for summary judgment. Target argues that Plaintiff's knee subluxation was neither actually nor proximately caused by Target's negligence. Target also contends that the expert opinion causally relating Plaintiff's fall at Target to her subsequent hospitalization should be barred as a net opinion. In its motion for judgment on the Third-Party Complaint, Virtua argues that neither party has adduced evidence supporting a prima facie case of negligence. Accordingly, Virtua asserts that there is no issue of material fact and that the hospital is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the current record.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court should grant a motion for summary judgment when the moving party "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is "material" to the dispute if it could alter the outcome, and a dispute of a material fact is "genuine" if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986); Matsushida Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) ("Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'") (quoting First National Bank of Arizona v. Cities Service Co. , 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968)). In deciding whether there is any genuine issue for trial, the court is not to weigh evidence or decide issues of fact. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248. Because fact and credibility determinations are for the jury, the non-moving party's evidence is to be believed and ambiguities construed in her favor. Id. at 255; Matsushida , 475 U.S. at 587.

Although the movant bears the burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the non-movant likewise must present more than mere allegations or denials to successfully oppose summary judgment. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 256. The nonmoving party must at least present probative evidence from which jury might return a verdict in his favor. Id. at 257. The movant is entitled to summary judgment where the non-moving party fails to "make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to ...


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