Personnel Injury Lawyers in Manassas – No Evidentiary Errors

A Carluzzo Rochkind & Smith note:   Following is an excellent article by Virginia Lawyers Weekly.  We did not handle this case, but it brings up important points your personal injury lawyers should be familiar with. For more than 30 years our personal injury lawyers in Manassas have helped clients with such matters in Prince William County, Fairfax County, Woodbridge, and throughout Northern Virginia. If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please contact our law firm at (703) 361-0776.

No evidentiary errors in trial for punitive damages

By Virginia Lawyers Weekly – 9/25/2023

Where appellant estate administrator did not contemporaneously object to admission of a letter that responded to a medical board’s inquiry about appellee doctor’s treatment of the decedent — who died from a drug overdose — appellant has waived her argument that the letter should not have been admitted as evidence.

After Curtis broke her ankle, Dr. Highfill, the appellee in this case, surgically repaired it. About a year later, he removed the surgical hardware.

“Following her first surgery on March 6, 2011, Dr. Highfill prescribed Curtis with Percocet, an opioid and narcotic medication. At the time he prescribed the medication, Dr. Highfill understood that Curtis suffered from bipolar disorder and that she was at an increased risk for addiction to and abuse of narcotic medication.

“Dr. Highfill never attempted to wean Curtis from the medication and continued to prescribe her with Percocet until she died from a drug overdose in June 2014.”

Appellant, the administrator of Curtis’s estate, sued Highfill for medical malpractice, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

“Dr. Highfill filed a motion in limine to preclude the administrator from introducing evidence or testimony regarding the Board of Medicine’s investigation of his treatment of Curtis. The administrator did not oppose the motion[.]”

The parties stipulated that Highfill breached the standard of care and that causation was the only issue at trial.

“At the close of the administrator’s case-in-chief, Dr. Highfill moved to strike the administrator’s claim for punitive damages, which the trial court granted. … [T]he jury found that Dr. Highfill’s negligence was a proximate cause of Curtis’ death and awarded her estate $100,000 in compensatory damages.”

The administrator appealed. The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the trial court erred by striking the punitive damages claim and remanded for a trial limited to that claim.

At the punitive damages trial, the court read a combined stipulation informing the prospective jurors that a jury had already awarded the administrator compensatory damages and that the only issue was “‘whether punitive damages should be assessed against Dr. Highfill, and, if so, in what amount.’ …

“Following the opening statements, the administrator called Dr. Highfill as an adverse witness, who testified regarding his treatment of Curtis, the Percocet he prescribed her, and her increased risk of addiction to and abuse of Percocet.”

At the close of the administrator’s case, Highfill “moved to strike the administrator’s claim for punitive damages, which the trial court denied.

“Dr. Highfill similarly testified regarding his treatment of Curtis and moved to introduce the medical chart into evidence.

“Notably, the medical chart included a three-page letter that had not been identified by Dr. Highfill’s exhibit list. Specifically, the letter, dated July 13, 2015, was Dr. Highfill’s response to complaints made to the Board of Medicine regarding his treatment of Curtis (the ‘2015 letter’).

“Among other things, the 2015 letter included an apology from Dr. Highfill for Curtis’ death, stated that his practice would no longer ‘treat any patients for longer than 6 months … after their last surgical procedure with chronic pain medicine,’ identified other doctors who prescribed medication that may have contributed to Curtis’ overdose, and stated that the administrator had never ‘expressed any concerns’ regarding Curtis’ treatment.

“The administrator objected ‘only’ to the portions of the medical chart that did ‘not relate to Dr. Highfill’s prescription of opioids.’ She clarified that she had no objection to the portions of the medical chart ‘from March of 2011 onward.’

“Dr. Highfill responded that the administrator failed to file a written objection to the medical chart as required by the trial court’s scheduling order.”

After asking the administrator twice whether she had an objection to the letter’s admission, “[t]he administrator responded that she had “no objection” if the pages were “records from March of 2011 onwards.”

The jury found in favor of Highfill. The administrator appealed.

No specific objection
The administrator challenges the admissibility of the 2015 letter.

“Dr. Highfill counters that the administrator waived her challenge … by failing to raise a contemporaneous objection at trial. We agree with Dr. Highfill.

“‘No ruling of the trial court … will be considered as a basis for reversal unless an objection was stated with reasonable certainty at the time of the ruling, except for good cause shown or to enable this Court to attain the ends of justice.’ …

“The record does not show that the administrator raised any specific and timely objection with respect to the admission of the 2015 letter, nor the arguments she advances on appeal.

“At best, it shows that the administrator requested that the 2015 letter be ‘left out’ because it raised a ‘relevance issue,’ without further explanation.

“‘Under settled principles, the “same argument must have been raised, with specificity, at trial before it can be considered on appeal.”’ …

“The administrator did not argue at trial as she does now that Code § 54.1-2400.2(B) was a bar to the admission of the 2015 letter. Nor did the administrator argue that the trial court’s ruling on Dr. Highfill’s motion in limine prohibited the 2015 letter from being admitted into evidence.

“Finally, even assuming that she raised the issue of the 2015 letter’s relevance generally during trial, she did not argue how or why the letter would be irrelevant to the trial. This objection therefore does not meet the specificity requirement contained in Rule 5A:18. …

“[W]e find that the administrator waived her arguments and do not consider them on appeal.”

Compensatory damages references
“[T]he trial court’s combined jury instruction informed the jury that the administrator had been awarded compensatory damages and that her claim for such damages had been ‘fully resolved.’

“Contrary to the administrator’s claim that the trial court’s jury instruction ‘created an unacceptable risk that the jury would take into account the compensatory damages award in reaching its determination on punitive damages,’ they discouraged the jury from making an improper award of additional compensatory damages.

“Moreover, the record demonstrates that the trial court offered the instruction only twice, first at the start of the three-day trial and then again on the third day of trial before the jury retired to deliberate.

“Similarly, Dr. Highfill made three brief references to the administrator’s compensatory damages award during his opening statement and closing argument, each of which reminded the jury that compensatory damages were not at issue.

“Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by reading the instruction to the jury or by allowing Dr. Highfill to reference the compensatory damage award during his opening and closing arguments.”


Curtis v. Highfill, Record No. 1154-22-4, Sept. 5, 2023. CAV (unpublished opinion) (Fulton III) From the Circuit Court of Prince William County. (Metzler) Alfred A. Clarke for appellant. Rodney S. Dillman, Julie C. Mayer, Nicholas J.N. Stamatis for appellee. VLW 023-7-342, 13 pp.

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