CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled that an award of attorney fees and costs in a 13-year-old lawsuit is an abuse of discretion.
In the underlying trial, Andrea Karpacs-Brown was awarded damages against Dr. Anandhi Murthy and Woodbrook Casualty Insurance Company in a medical negligence action concerning the death of Elizabeth Karpacs, according to the June 6 opinion.
The court remanded the action for an evidentiary hearing regarding the circuit court’s award of attorney fees and costs to Karpacs-Brown and the remand hearing was conducted in February 2015 and followed by the entry of an order on April 2, 2015, again awarding attorney fees and costs to Karpacs-Brown.
Murthy and Woodbrook then appealed the April 2, 2015, order.
“This court is of the opinion that the award of attorney fes and costs to Karpacs-Brown constituted an abuse of discretion,” the opinion states. “We, therefore, reverse the April 2, 2015, order of the Circuit Court of Wetzel County and set aside Karpacs-Brown’s award of attorney fees and costs, with prejudice.”
Chief Justice Menis Ketchum authored the majority opinion. Justice Margaret Workman concurred authored a concurring opinion.
On June 1, 2001, Karpacs presented to Wetzel County Hospital Emergency Room in New Martinsville and came under Murthy’s care. Her symptoms included abdominal discomfort, nausea and vomiting and the following day, she slipped into shock and died.
On May 23, 2003, Andrew Karpacs, who was the administrator of Elizabeth Karpacs’ estate, filed a medical negligence action against Murthy, alleging that Murthy failed to perform exploratory surgery to identify, diagnose and correct Elizabeth Karpacs’ intra-abdominal condition. Upon Andrew Karpacs’ death, Karpacs-Brown was appointed administratrix of both estates.
On Jan. 22, 2008 the four-day trial began and Murthy was found guilty of negligence and the jury returned a verdict of $4 million in compensatory damages, which consisted of $1 million for pain and suffering and $1 million for each of her three children.
After the trial, the circuit court allowed Karpacs-Brown to add Woodbrook, Murthy’s insurance carrier, as a party defendant, and she demanded that Woodbrook pay all attorney fees and costs incurred in prosecuting the medical negligence action.
On July 29, 2008, the circuit court denied Murthy’s post-trial motions and directed that Karpacs-Brown’s attorneys fees and costs would be paid by either Murthy or Woodbrook and confirmed Karpacs-Brown’s assertion that Woodbrook failed to negotiate a settlement despite the parties’ willingness to resolve the action.
In April 2010, Karpacs-Brown renewed her motion for attorneys fees and costs. On Feb. 20, 2015, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the issue of attorney fees and costs and, on March 24, 2015, the circuit court entered an order directing the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law within 30 days.
Nine days later, the circuit court entered an order awarding Karpacs-Brown attorney fees and costs. Woodbrook and Murthy then filed separate petitions for appeal of the order.
“Both the pre-Murthy 1 order of July 29, 2008, and the virtually identical post-Murthy 1 April 2, 2015, order fail to support an award of attorney fees and costs in favor of plaintiff Karpacs-Brown to be paid by Dr. Murthy or her medical professional liability insurance carrier, Woodbrook,” the decision states.
The Supreme Court ruled that the award of attorney fees and costs constitutes an abuse of discretion and they reversed the Wetzel Circuit Court order and set aside the award of attorney fees and costs, with prejudice.
In her concurring opinion, Workman said she concurred, but wrote separately to accentuate the existence of viable foundations upon which a nuanced order of sanctions could have been premised.
“An order sanctioning a party is subject to an abuse of discretion analysis,” she said. “A vital component of such discretion is the ability of a trial court, from the unique perspective it occupies, to sanction a party for misconduct.”
As the majority references, the trial court could have sanctioned the defendant for individual instances of litigation abuse and the defendants’ behavior with regard to mediation attempts, for instance, could have been separately addressed.
“The trial court should have more specifically identified each component of the objectionable conduct, considered less stringent sanctions and fashioned a reasonable sanction appropriate to each identified transgression,” she said.
If the sanctions had been independently fashioned to address the defendants’ questionable actions during the protracted litigation, the Supreme Court possibly could have had a basis upon which to affirm the trial court’s rulings, thus preserving the inherent and discretionary power of a trial court to control the proceedings of litigation.
The petitioners are represented by Stephen R. Brooks and Robert C. James of Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso PLLC; and Ancil G. Ramey of Steptoe & Johnson.
Karpacs-Brown was represented by Christopher J. Regan and Geoffrey C. Brown of Bordas & Bordas PLLC.
W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 15-0376