A health care worker appealed summary judgment for Defendants Mother and Father in her action against them for damages for a permanent and disabling back injury she allegedly sustained while caring for their disabled teenage daughter (CZ) in their home.
Plaintiff worked in Defendants’ home for seven weeks as a pediatric home health nurse for 12-hour overnight shifts.
Even though Defendants installed an elevator in their home to facilitate their 90-lb daughter’s safe movement, they didn’t have a Hoyer Lift.
A Hoyer Lift, or “sling lift,” is a floor crane used to transfer a patient between two places, like her bed and a wheelchair using a sling.
The Hoyer Lift lets the caregiver to move a patient them having to physically lift the patient.
After Plaintiff began working for Defendants, she asked the Mother about why they didn’t have a Hoyer Lift.
Mother responded, “We don’t have one or need one.”
Defendant Father disagreed, stating, “Yes, we need to get one.”
However, the Mother replied, “No, I don’t want one in the house.”
As Plaintiff worked for Defendants, she continued to complain to Mother at the end of every shift about the need for—and potential dangers of not having—a Hoyer Lift.
After initially ignoring Plaintiff’s complaints, Mother eventually admitted that a Hoyer Lift was necessary and required for her daughter’s care. She then promised she’d get one immediately, before CZ was injured. But that never happened.
On one overnight shift, Plaintiff tried to lift and position CZ, but in so doing so, she claimed she severely injured her lower back.
Plaintiff filed her complaint, asserting a negligence claim against Defendants for their failure to provide the promised Hoyer Lift.
The trial judge granted summary judgment to Defendants and dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint, holding that she needed an expert witness to explain the risks and benefits of the Hoyer Lift, viewing the subject as beyond the ken of the average juror. Plaintiff appealed.
In a per curiam opinion, the New Jersey Superior Court reviewed the trial judge’s determination that Plaintiff couldn’t sustain her burden of proof to establish that Defendants violated a duty to her without expert testimony.
To admit an expert’s testimony, the Superior Court said that it must have some logical connection to the disputed issue in the case.
The Court went on to explain that the ultimate issue in this action was whether Defendants breached a duty owed to Plaintiff.
The question for the jury to answer was whether Defendants failed to provide Plaintiff a reasonably safe work place, and if so, whether that failure was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s lower back injury.
While the Superior Court held that Plaintiff wasn’t required to submit expert testimony on the issue of whether Defendants owed a duty of care, there were “open issues of causation and damage” that were “plainly amenable to expert testimony.”
As such, the Superior Court agreed with the trial court on the need for Plaintiff to present expert testimony to establish causation and damages, such as a medical expert to explain whether a Hoyer Lift was appropriate to transfer CZ, the use of a Hoyer Lift, the means by which it facilitates safe patient lifting and transfer, and how and why it would have likely prevented Plaintiff’s back injury.
The Superior Court noted that the trial judge’s opinion acknowledged that Plaintiff requested an opportunity to obtain an expert witness on the Hoyer Lift, but the judge denied her request because trial was scheduled for the following month.
As a result, the Superior Court found that the judge erred in exercising his discretion when he denied Plaintiff the opportunity to obtain a Hoyer Lift expert witness.
In light of its clarification of the legal principles involved, as to the existence and scope of Defendants’ duty, the Superior Court believed that the interests of justice required it to afford both parties a renewed opportunity on remand to present expert testimony on the use of a Hoyer Lift in these circumstances and whether it would’ve likely prevented Plaintiff’s injury, or at least reduced the severity of any potential injury.
This Hoyer Lift expert testimony will enable the jury to competently address the issues of liability, causation, and damages, the Court held.
The case was vacated and remanded.
Gilvary v. Cerza, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2154 (N.J. Supr. Ct. September 28, 2018)
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