Auto accident blamed for fatal heart attack. Retrial. Riverside County.
66-year-old man dies of heart attack at hospital where he was taken following an auto accident. Trial on causation.
- Case Name: Ruth Gougeon, Steven Gougeon, Madeline Gougeon, Nicole Shuey v. Guy Parks
- Court and Case Number: Riverside County Superior Court / RIC1101877
- Date of Verdict or Judgment: Thursday, May 24, 2018
- Type of Action: Vehicles - Motorcycle , Wrongful Death
- Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Daniel A. Ottolia
- Plaintiffs: Ruth Gougeon, Steven Gougeon, Madeline Gougeon, Nicole Shuey
- Defendants: Guy Parks
- Type of Result: Bench Verdict
- Gross Verdict or Award: $500,000 – The jury found that the collision was a substantial factor in Mr. Gougeon’s death.
- Economic Damages:
Past household services: $54,000
- Non-Economic Damages:
- Trial or Arbitration Time: 14 days.
- Jury Deliberation Time: 1 1/2 days.
- Jury Polls: Substantial factor: 9-3; Past financial support: 10-2; Past household services: 11-1; Future household services: 12-0; Non-economic damages: 9-3.
- Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: Plaintiffs filed a Motion for New Trial based on Inadequacy of Damages, which was denied.
- Attorney for the Plaintiff:
Yuhl Carr LLP by James Carr, Marina del Rey.
- Attorney for the Defendant:
Gates Gonter Guy Proudfoot & Muench, LLP by Karl Robert Gonter Jr. and Elham R. Rabbani, Irvine.
- Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):
Mathew Underwood, M.D., emergency physician, Riverside.
Ahmad Alturjuman, M.D., cardiology, Riverside.
Mark Fajardo, M.D., coroner, Riverside.
Daniel Wohlgelernter, M.D., cardiology, Santa Monica.
Brian King, M.D., neuroradiology, Santa Monica.
- Defendant's Medical Expert(s):
Robert Chesne, M.D., cardiology, Inglewood.
Stephan Rothman, M.D., neuroradiology, Los Angeles.
Marvin Pietruszka, M.D., pathology, Reseda.
- Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):
Peter Formuzis, Ph.D., forensic economics.
- Defendant's Technical Expert(s):
Facts and Background
- Facts and Background:
This case was originally brought to trial in 2014 and was defended by Jennifer Tseng of Tseng & Associates. Plaintiffs appealed the original jury verdict in 2016. The second trial was held in 2018, and was defended by K. Robert Gonter Jr., and Elham R. Rabbani, of Gates Gonter Guy Proudfoot & Muench, LLP. Plaintiffs alleged the subject accident caused the decedent's heart attack and death. During the second trial, the defense argued that the decedent would have died regardless of the subject accident due to his pre-accident heart-related health conditions.
On May 15, 2010, at approximately 10:56 a.m., on Ontario Boulevard, in the City of Corona, Guy Parks, 66, was driving his Jeep Grand Cherokee and was stopped at the driveway exit of a Vons parking lot. A Toyota Sienna was traveling eastbound on Ontario Boulevard in the number three of three lanes. No other approaching vehicles were visible. When the Toyota began making a left turn into the parking lot, Mr. Parks initiated a legal left turn onto Ontario Avenue. As he made that maneuver, his vehicle was struck in the number two lane by a 2005 Harley Davidson Heritage Softail Classic motorcycle, which was being operated by Rene Gougeon, 60. Mr. Gougeon’s Harley was in the blind-spot of the Toyota. Mr. Gougeon was transported to Riverside Community Hospital, which was 12 miles away, via ambulance. He arrived within 36 minutes of the accident. He died a few hours later of a heart attack in the hospital.
The first trial commenced on May 9, 2014, in Riverside County, with Judge Daniel A. Ottolia, presiding. A different defense firm conducted the first trial. At the conclusion of the trial the jury found that Mr. Parks was negligent, but that the negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the death of Mr. Gougeon. On June 24, 2014, judgment was entered in favor of defendant, Mr. Parks, and against plaintiffs, Ruth Gougeon, Steven Gougeon, Madeline Gougeon, and Nicole Shuey. Plaintiffs filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), which was denied. However, the trial court granted plaintiffs’ alternative motion for a new trial based on a Kennemur violation, in which the defense expert cardiologist had offered an opinion at trial based on new information pertaining to an additional cause of death, i.e., a perforated artery caused by the medical staff while placing the stents.
On December 22, 2016, The Court of Appeal of The State of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two, decided that the trial court correctly denied plaintiffs’ motion for JNOV. This was because substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding that plaintiffs failed to prove causation. However, the Appellate Court also affirmed the trial court’s order granting a new trial and rejected defendant’s appeal.
At issue on appeal was whether the heart attack that killed Mr. Gougeon was caused by the traffic accident, or whether he would have passed away from the heart attack, even if the accident had not occurred. Both plaintiffs' and defendant’s experts agreed that the heart attack caused Mr. Gougeon’s death; the contention however, was what caused the heart attack in the first place.
An autopsy revealed that Mr. Gougeon had serious preexisting heart problems and a corresponding reduced future life expectancy. He had a long history of hypertension. He also had atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, blocking more than 50 percent of two of the three major coronary arteries. His heart was enlarged, at almost twice the normal size, and the left ventricle wall was 50 percent thicker than it should have been. By the time he arrived at the hospital, the third left anterior descending (LAD) artery, which is colloquially called the “widowmaker” was 100 percent blocked.
The second trial commenced on May 1, 2018. It was again held in the Superior Court of Riverside County, again with Judge Daniel A. Ottolia, presiding. Prior to trial commencing, plaintiffs’ counsel sought a motion for protective order to prevent the defense from arguing liability. That motion was granted. The second trial focused only on causation and damages, as the first trial had already determined Mr. Parks was negligent.
Plaintiffs first called Dr. Underwood, the ER physician, who was an unretained expert. Dr. Underwood had been practicing emergency medicine for 24 years, and stated that it was extremely rare to have a patient enter the emergency room with trauma and also a heart attack. He stated that he had never before or since seen such an occurrence.
Plaintiffs then called the treating cardiologist, Dr. Alturjuman, who testified that Mr. Gougeon’s accident/trauma caused a delay related to Mr. Gougeon getting into the Cath lab. However, Dr. Alturjuman considered and reported that the procedures he performed were successful and that there were no complications noted in any report.
Next, Dr. Fajardo, the coroner who performed the autopsy on Mr. Gougeon was called. He discussed the findings on autopsy related to cardiovascular, heart, and kidney disease. Dr. Farjardo stated that the cause of death, was the accident, and that it was a substantial factor. On cross examination, Dr. Fajardo admitted the cause of death was listed as myocardial infarction/heart attack, and that the other secondary cause was listed as the motor vehicle accident.
Then plaintiffs called Dr. Wohlgelernter, another cardiologist, who testified that he believed the accident caused the heart attack and that absent the accident Mr. Gougen would have survived that heart attack, and would have lived approximately 20 additional years. However, on cross examination, various contradictions in Dr. Wohlgelernter's testimony were pointed out, i.e., that Mr. Gougeon underwent 45 mins of CPR and that his sternum was not fractured when he entered the hospital, demonstrating the absence of accident-related chest trauma.
Plaintiffs played the video deposition of Dr. Massee, who is a radiologist at Riverside Community Hospital, and who read the images related to Mr. Gougeon when he entered the hospital. In that deposition, Dr. Massee admitted that the radiology report related to the CT Scan of Mr. Gougeon’s chest does not identify a fracture of the sternum. Dr. Massee went on to explain that there was a sternum fracture, but he did not perceive it initially.
Dr. King, a neuroradiologist, was called to testify in his capacity to argue that Mr. Gougeon had a sternum fracture when he entered the hospital. Dr. King agreed Dr. Massee’s second opinion regarding a sternal fracture. Cross examination highlighted that there was no mention of a fracture in the sternum in the CT and/or X-rays taken when Mr. Gougeon entered the hospital. The defense’s position was that those markings referred to by Dr. King were artefactual stripes, e.g., imperfections in the film that run through the image.
Mr. Gougeon was unemployed at the time of his death. However, Dr. Formuzis, a forensic economist was called to discuss and testified to a loss of earnings of $537,820 from Mr. Gougeon’s assumed employment date of January 1, 2011. Cross examination highlighted that Mr. Gougeon was retired at the time of his death. Dr. Formuzis admitted that he was informed by plaintiffs that Mr. Gougeon was out of work for approximately nine months before his death.
On May 21, 2018, the defense began presenting its case. Dr. Chesne, the defense cardiologist, stated that the accident did not, in his opinion cause the heart attack and that it was not a substantial factor.
Next, Dr. Rothman, the defense neuroradiologist, explained the artefactual stripes that were running through the films. Dr. Rothman opined that the sternum was not broken when Mr. Gougeon entered the hospital, and that the markings were mistaken as breaks.
Lastly, Dr. Pietruszka, the defense pathologist, was called where he opined that the accident was not a substantial factor in causing the death. He relied on the report written by Dr. Fajardo that listed “necrosis” in the heart upon autopsy. Dr. Pietruszka stated that for necrosis to be visible to the naked eye, death of the tissue would have started at least 12 hours prior, which placed the heart attack before the accident.
On May 23, 2018, plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument, which lasted 1.5 hours. He asked the jury to award all of the economic damages contained in their forensic economist’s report, which called for past loss of earnings and household services, which totaled at $774,962. He then asked the jury to award 28 million dollars in non-economic damages.
- Plaintiff's Contentions:
That the traffic accident caused decedent's heart attack.
- Defendant's Contentions:
That the subject traffic accident did not cause decedent's heart attack; that the decedent would have died regardless of the subject accident due to his pre-accident heart-related health conditions.
Injuries and Other Damages
- Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:
Mr. Gougeon had multiple fractures including a right thumb fracture, fractures to the pelvis, multiple rib fractures, nasal soft tissue swelling, a nasal fracture, a right ischium fracture, a right femoral neck fracture, and right upper lobe contusions, and was having a heart attack.
While en route to the hospital, he was exhibiting signs of a myocardial infarction, and the paramedic administered an EKG and diagnosed him with an acute “continuing” heart attack. In the emergency room, the heart attack was confirmed and he was taken to the catheterization laboratory (“Cath Lab”) late. Following surgery to insert stents in his arteries, he had a major myocardial infarction/heart attack, underwent extensive CPR, and died at the hospital that day.
Demands and Offers
- Plaintiff Final Demand before Trial: $1,750,000
- Defendant Final Offer before Trial: $100,000 (policy limits)