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St. John v. Peterson

Supreme Court of South Dakota

June 3, 2015

LITA ST. JOHN, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
LINDA PETERSON, M.D., Defendant and Appellee

Considered on Briefs March 23, 2015

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIFTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT ROBERTS COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA. THE HONORABLE JON S. FLEMMER, Judge.

THOMAS L. SANNES, DAVID A. GEYER of Delaney, Nielsen & Sannes, PC, Webster, South Dakota, Attorneys for plaintiff and appellant.

REED RASMUSSEN of Siegel, Barnett and Schutz, LLP, Aberdeen, South Dakota, Attorneys for defendant and appellee.

WILBUR, Justice. GILBERTSON, Chief Justice, and ZINTER, SEVERSON, and KERN, Justices, concur.

OPINION

Page 126

WILBUR, J.

[¶1] The circuit court entered judgment for Defendant, Dr. Linda Peterson. Plaintiff, Lita St. John, appeals the judgment and challenges the court's ruling that certain evidence was not relevant and, therefore, was inadmissible. We affirm.

Background

[¶2] This is the third appeal of this medical malpractice action. See St. John v. Peterson ( St. John I ), 2011 S.D. 58, 804 N.W.2d 71; St. John v. Peterson ( St. John II ), 2013 S.D. 67, 837 N.W.2d 394. The subject of the first appeal involved an appeal of the 2010 jury verdict in favor of Dr. Peterson. St. John I, 2011 S.D. 58, ¶ 19, 804 N.W.2d at 74. The circuit court denied the admission of testimony from St. John's expert witness, Dr. Arnold Wharton, regarding Dr. Peterson's experience with similar medical procedures. Id. ¶ 8. We held that the circuit court " misstated and apparently misapplied the balancing test of Rule 403." Id. ¶ 18, 804 N.W.2d at 77. As a result, we reversed and remanded to the circuit court. Id. ¶ 19.

[¶3] On remand, the circuit court concluded that the proffered evidence was inadmissible and reinstated the original judgment. St. John II, 2013 S.D. 67, ¶ 11, 837 N.W.2d at 397. The court issued a

Page 127

memorandum decision on June 4, 2012, and findings of fact and conclusions of law on July 9, 2012. We held on appeal that the circuit court erred when it reinstated the judgment against Dr. Peterson. Id. ¶ 23, 837 N.W.2d at 400. Consequently, we reversed and remanded for a retrial, stating that " [t]he restoration of a reversed jury verdict based on a trial court's review of a pre-trial motion in limine on an evidence issue subverts the trial process." Id.

[¶4] This third appeal concerns St. John's claim that Dr. Peterson was negligent for failing to refer St. John to a doctor who specialized in repairing vesicovaginal fistulas.[1] On April 10, 2014, Dr. Peterson filed a motion in limine with the circuit court. Dr. Peterson requested that the court preclude, inter alia, (1) " Plaintiff from offering any testimony or evidence concerning other lawsuits or claims brought against Defendant or the facts involved in those other lawsuits or claims[; ]" and (2) " Plaintiff from offering any testimony or evidence regarding Defendant's unsuccessful treatment of other patients with vesicovaginal fistulas." Dr. Peterson further requested that the court " reaffirm its Order regarding Dr. Wharton's deposition filed August 18, 2010, and order the redaction of the same portions of his deposition that were redacted during the last trial of this matter."

[¶5] On April 24, 2014, the circuit court conducted a pretrial hearing on the motion in limine. The court granted Dr. Peterson's motion in limine on April 30, 2014. This precluded St. John from proffering statements from Dr. Peterson's deposition regarding her treatment of three former patients who suffered vesicovaginal fistulas: Cheryl, Crystal, and Ruth. Moreover, the court reaffirmed its July 9, 2012 findings of fact and conclusions of law, wherein the court found that St. John's proffered evidence regarding Dr. Peterson's treatment of Cheryl, Crystal, and Ruth, was not relevant.

[¶6] Specifically, the circuit court found that evidence regarding Dr. Peterson's care and treatment of Cheryl was not relevant because it did not make the existence of any fact in St. John's case more or less probable on the issue of Dr. Peterson's competence to repair St. John's vesicovaginal fistula. Dr. Peterson performed an abdominal hysterectomy on Cheryl. During the surgery, Dr. Peterson observed a " rent" on Cheryl's bladder, but she took no steps to address the " rent" at the time of the surgery. Later, Cheryl developed a vesicovaginal fistula in a different location than the " rent." Dr. Peterson successfully repaired the fistula. Thereafter, Cheryl developed another fistula in a separate location from the first fistula. Dr. Peterson attempted to repair the second fistula. Following the surgery of the second fistula, Cheryl sought care elsewhere and underwent further surgery. In finding that this evidence was not relevant, the court noted that Dr. Peterson successfully repaired one fistula, and the " results of her attempts to repair the second fistula are unknown."

[¶7] In addition, the circuit court found that evidence regarding Dr. Peterson's care and treatment of Crystal and Ruth was not relevant because Dr. Peterson did not attempt to use the Latzko procedure to repair either Ruth or Crystal's vesicovaginal fistulas. Instead, ...


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