I have been a children’s injury attorney in Florida for more than 23 years. I have represented kids who were hurt in accidents at schools, day care centers, theme parks, and in traffic accidents. As a father of two, I can think of nothing more tragic than the loss of a child, especially due to the carelessness or greed of another.
Whenever I have had the responsibility of representing an injured child or the parents who have lost a child, one of my goals beyond investigating and litigating the case is to find a way to prevent the tragedy from happening again—to anyone, including my own kids.
So it is with a heavy heart, as a father and children’s injury attorney, that I share with you the events leading to the death of a Florida seventeen year old, Matthew Miulli. Matthew was born with a progressive heart condition that affected the ability of his heart to pump blood efficiently through his body. The condition, called patent ductus arteriosus, put him at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.
For the ten years before he died, he was seen annually by pediatric cardiologists and internal medical doctors, who put him through several diagnostic tests, such as stress tests and EKGs. As he grew older, he developed a love for baseball, and his pediatrician cleared him to play baseball, but no other contact sports.
In August 2004, he as seen by a family medical doctor, Dr. Shartz, for a physical and to obtain a signature on a sports medical release form that his mother had downloaded from the internet. Dr. Shartz asked Matthew’s mother when he had last been examined by a cardiologist. The answer to the question is contested, but it led to the mistaken assumption by Dr. Shartz that it had been within a year and that he had been cleared by the cardiologist. Relying on that mistaken assumption, he signed the medical authorization clearing the boy to play baseball.
After Matthew left his office, Dr. Shartz then contacted the cardiologist to corroborate what the boy and his mother had told him about the date of the last exam. He learned that the boy’s mother was mistaken, and in fact it had been several years since he had last been examined by the cardiologist. Dr. Shartz then telephoned several times in an effort to contact the boy’s mother to revoke the authorization. He sent both regular mail and a certified return receipt letter (which was returned to his office as undelivered, though apparently his office failed to advise Dr. Shartz of this) and was thus unsuccessful in contacting the mother or Matthew to revoke the authorization.
Ironically, the release he signed was unnecessary for Mathew’s participation in preseason baseball workouts and was not used by the Florida High School Athletics Association (FHSAA) for any purpose. Matthew’s mother had believed that the boy would require a cardiologist to evaluate him prior to the start of the varsity baseball season in 2005.
Just weeks before the season started, during the preseason conditioning, Matthew collapsed, and despite efforts to resuscitate him, he died on the field. I do not know whether or not a defibrillator was available or used on Matthew; to learn more about Florida’s defibrillator laws and how these devices are used at Florida’s public schools, read my recent Huffington Post blog, The Shocking Truth—Florida’s Defibrillator Law.
His mother sued Dr. Shartz, his office (Healthpoint Medical Group), and the Hillsborough County School Board, and after a long trial was awarded over $2-million dollars. The jury divided the blame for Matthew’s death amongst the defendants and apportioned 60% of it to his mother for failing to respond to the phone calls and letters and for failing to know the last time Matthew had actually been seen by the cardiologist prior to his death. The remaining judgment of over $700,000 was the subject of an appeal to Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal.
It is important to note, that in my experience of over 22 years as a children’s injury attorney of suing doctors and hospitals in Florida, rarely have I seen a plaintiff or patient’s verdict—especially one as large as this—survive an appeal. And sadly, Matthew’s case is not an exception.
The Second District Court, sitting miles and years from where the live testimony was heard by both a judge and jury, reversed the entire verdict, citing the principle that Matthew’s case was based upon an “impermissible stacking of inferences,” or in other words too many things had to happen (but failed to happen) for there to be any fault placed upon the defendants.
In Florida, for an injured patient to have a viable medical malpractice case against a doctor or hospital, there must be proof of the following:
- A Standard of Care Owed by the Defendant Doctor or Hospital (Responsibility)
- A Breach of the Standard of Care (Mistake)
- Said Breach Proximately Caused the Damages Claimed (Causation)
Florida courts follow the “more likely than not standard of causation” and require proof that the doctor’s or hospital’s mistake “probably”—not “possibly”—caused the patient’s injury or death. And it must be proved without the victim’s “impermissibly stacking inferences,” or by arguing multiple things must have happened, that actually did not, for the result to occur.
In Matthew’s case, the Appellate court decision stated that in order to preserve his verdict, his counsel would have had to prove:
- If Dr. Shartz had actually spoken with his mother, Matthew would not have participated in the preseason conditioning, and
- If Dr. Shartz had spoken to the mother, she would have taken Matthew to the cardiologist, and
- If Mathew had been seen by the cardiologist, the cardiologist would not have signed the authorization (which was not required at the time anyway).
My heartfelt sympathies go out to Matthew’s family for their loss; as a children’s injury attorney, I applaud their efforts and success at trial and commiserate that they were deprived of justice on appeal. As I said, no child should die in vain, and there are many lessons here to be learned for all of us, both as parents and lawyers.
With school sports just around the corner, I urge all parents to make sure to take their children to be seen by a competent pediatrician and undergo the appropriate diagnostic testing to prevent further tragedies like this. To learn more about how to find free EKGs at your local children’s hospital and how they can potentially save your child’s life, please click here.