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Date: 04-25-2001

Case Style: Janet Phillips v. Covenant Clinic, et al.

Case Number: 48 / 99-0865

Judge: Cady

Court: Supreme Court of Iowa

Plaintiff's Attorney: Roman Vald and David L. Phillips of Phillips, McCollom, Kozlowski & Vald, P.L.C., West Des Moines, Iowa

Defendant's Attorney: George L. Weilein of Gallagher, Langlas & Gallagher, P.C., Waterloo, Iowa

Description: Medical malpractice - Janet Phillips, as executor of her father's estate, brought this wrongful death action against the Covenant Clinic and three physicians after her father died of heart failure shortly after being treated at the clinic. The district court granted summary judgment for the clinic and the physicians, concluding that Janet had presented insufficient facts to support the proximate cause element of her claim. Janet appeals, claiming she was entitled to an inference derived from the failure of the clinic to produce medical records to support a genuine issue of material fact with respect to causation.

Paul Harvey Phillips went to the Covenant Clinic in Waterloo on January 3, 1996, complaining of flu-like symptoms. He was eighty years old. Debra Cortes, a physician's assistant, examined Paul and learned he was experiencing chest pains. Paul had recently suffered congestive heart failure. Dr. Ronald Roth, who was supervising Cortes, ordered an EKG and a chest x-ray. After the EKG was performed, Paul was permitted to walk on his own to the neighboring hospital for the chest x-ray. He collapsed, however, on his way to the hospital in cardiac arrest. Around the same time, Dr. Thomas Pattee reviewed Paul's EKG strip. When Dr. Pattee learned Paul had collapsed on his way to the hospital, he grabbed Paul's entire medical file from the clinic, which included the EKG results, and hand-delivered the file to the intensive care unit of the hospital, where Paul was being treated. Doctors at the hospital were unable to save Paul's life. He died at the hospital. In June 1996, Janet sought her father's medical records from the clinic. The clinic subsequently informed Janet that her father's medical file was missing. No one at the hospital or clinic had seen Paul's medical file since it had been hand-delivered to the intensive care unit by Dr. Pattee on January 3, 1996. The only document the clinic was able to produce was Cortes' notes from the January 3 office visit. The clinic asked Janet to check Paul's personal belongings from the January 3 hospitalization to ensure the clinical records had not been inadvertently included with those belongings. The medical records were not found. Janet filed this wrongful death action on January 2, 1998. She alleged medical malpractice against the Covenant Clinic, Dr. Roth, Dr. Pattee, and Dr. Ronald Flory. Dr. Flory did not see Paul or his EKG chart on January 3, 1996. However, Dr. Flory treated Paul at the clinic approximately two weeks before Paul's death. Pursuant to Iowa Code section 668.11 (1997), Janet named Dr. R. William Overton, III, as her medical expert. Dr. Overton concluded the clinic doctors breached their duty of care in treating Paul on January 3, 1996, by permitting him to leave the clinic before reviewing the EKG results. However, because Paul's medical file was unavailable for review, Dr. Overton was unable to conclude the breach caused Paul's death. The only document available for Dr. Overton to review was the office notes prepared by Cortes regarding the January 3 office visit. This document consisted of both dictated and handwritten notes. Dr. Overton concluded Cortes added the handwritten notes after her dictation had been transcribed, and found this conduct was potentially indicative of an attempt to conceal the medical records. The defendants moved for summary judgment. They claimed Janet's failure to establish a causal relationship between the doctors' purported breach of the standard of care and Paul's death was fatal to her claim. Janet resisted the motion. She claimed the defendants' failure to produce relevant records within their control entitled her to an inference that the missing medical records contained evidence unfavorable to the defendants, and that this inference gave rise to a genuine issue of material fact on the causation element. The district court granted the motion for summary judgment. Janet appeals. She claims the district court erred in holding the spoliation inference could not support a proximate cause finding under the circumstances.

Outcome: Affirmed.

Plaintiff's Experts: Unknown

Defendant's Experts: Unknown

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