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Hytko v. Hennessey

May 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Peters, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

Calendar Date: March 25, 2009

Before: Cardona, P.J., Peters, Lahtinen, Kane and McCarthy, JJ.


Appeals (1) from an order of the Supreme Court (Malone Jr., J.), entered April 13, 2005 in Albany County, which structured the judgment to be entered upon a verdict in favor of plaintiff pursuant to CPLR article 50-A, and (2) from a judgment of said court, entered August 31, 2005 in Albany County, upon, among other things, a verdict rendered in favor of plaintiff.

At the time of the events giving rise to this medical malpractice and wrongful death action, defendants Mary S. Elacqua and William J. Hennessey (hereinafter collectively referred to as the physicians) practiced as members of a partnership, defendant OB/GYN Health Center Associates. Third-party defendant, Jane E. Szary, a nurse practitioner employed by OB/GYN, was the primary caregiver to Kim A. Hytko (hereinafter decedent). Beginning in June 1994 and on several other occasions during the months that followed, decedent presented to defendants with complaints of abdominal pain and was seen and treated by Szary. Decedent was admitted to the hospital in October 1994 and died the following month, the cause of death being listed as "[p]robable choriocarcinoma."*fn1 Plaintiff, individually and as administrator of decedent's estate, sued Szary, the physicians and OB/GYN*fn2 alleging, among other things, that Szary was negligent in failing to diagnose decedent's choriocarcinoma and that the physicians failed to properly collaborate with Szary in accordance with certain provisions of the Education Law. Plaintiff subsequently settled with Szary, releasing all claims against her, but reserving his right to proceed against the other defendants. In response, OB/GYN commenced a third-party action against Szary for indemnification.

A jury trial ensued and, at the close of plaintiff's proof, the physicians moved for a directed verdict in their favor. Supreme Court ultimately granted the motion and the complaint was dismissed against the physicians prior to submission of the case to the jury. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury rendered a verdict finding that Szary was negligent in her care and treatment of decedent and that such negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about her death. The jury awarded damages in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $1.89 million, and Supreme Court awarded OB/GYN judgment as a matter of law on its indemnification claim against Szary. These appeals by OB/GYN and Szary ensued.*fn3

Subsequently, Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers (hereinafter PRI) disclaimed coverage for the verdict (Elaqua v Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers, 21 AD3d 702, 703 [2005], lv dismissed 6 NY3d 844 [2006]). The physicians and OB/GYN thereafter commenced an action against PRI seeking money damages for breach of contract for its failure to properly defend and indemnify them (id. at 703-704). PRI then settled plaintiff's claim on behalf of its insureds for $2.4 million (Elacqua v Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers, 52 AD3d 886, 887 [2008] [hereinafter Elaqua II]), but the physicians and OB/GYN continued their action against PRI, seeking to recoup the counsel fees they expended in their attempt to compel it to indemnify them (id.). Ultimately, this Court found that PRI had engaged in deceptive business practices pursuant to General Business Law § 349 (id. at 889).

We begin by addressing Szary's assertion that Supreme Court improperly and prematurely dismissed the direct claims against the physicians. A directed verdict pursuant to CPLR 4401 is appropriate when, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party and affording such party the benefit of every inference, there is no rational process by which a jury could find in favor of the non-movant (see Szczerbiak v Pilat, 90 NY2d 553, 556 [1997]; Gold v Di Cerbo, 41 AD3d 1051, 1052-1053 [2007], lv denied 9 NY3d 811 [2007]; Ciocca v Park, 21 AD3d 671, 672 [2005], affd 5 NY3d 835 [2005]). In a medical malpractice action, establishment of a prima facie case requires expert testimony that there was a deviation from accepted standards of medical care and that such deviation was the proximate cause of the injury (see Turcsik v Guthrie Clinic, Ltd., 12 AD3d 883, 886 [2004]; Postlethwaite v United Health Servs. Hosps., 5 AD3d 892, 895 [2004]; Giambona v Stein, 265 AD2d 775, 776 [1999]).

As previously noted, the essence of plaintiff's case against the physicians was that they failed to adequately "collaborate" with Szary concerning decedent's care, within the meaning of Education Law § 6902 (3) (a). Upon the physicians' motion for a directed verdict, plaintiff conceded that there was no expert testimony that the physicians deviated from any accepted standard of care or that any such deviation was a substantial factor in causing the death of decedent. In fact, Richard Waldman, a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, testified that the degree of collaboration with Szary was in keeping with good and accepted standards of practice. Contrary to Szary's assertion that the directed verdict was granted before she had the opportunity to offer any proof, the record reveals that Supreme Court appropriately reserved on the motion and, before finally granting it, twice gave Szary the opportunity to submit evidence against the two physicians, which she failed to do. As the evidence presented was insufficient to establish a prima facie case against the physicians, Supreme Court appropriately granted them a directed verdict.

Szary next contends that, because her treatment of decedent was in furtherance of her employer's business, she cannot be held independently liable for negligent acts committed within that scope. Under well-settled principles of respondeat superior, it is fundamental that in order for an employer to be held vicariously liable for the torts of an employee, a viable cause of action must lie against that employee for his or her individual negligence (see Karaduman v Newsday, Inc., 51 NY2d 531, 545-546 [1980]; Sanderson v Bellevue Maternity Hosp., 259 AD2d 888, 891-892 [1999]; see also Lopez v Master, 58 AD3d 425 [2009]; Magriz v St. Barnabas Hosp., 43 AD3d 331, 332-333 [2007], lv denied 10 NY3d 790 [2008]). Thus, where the employee commits negligence, a cause of action lies against both the employee and the employer, and the employer has the right to seek indemnification (see McDermott v City of New York, 50 NY2d 211, 218 n 4 [1980]; Ditingo v Dreyfuss, 27 AD3d 1024, 1026-1027 [2006]; see also Macari v Parsons Hosp., 26 AD2d 584, 584 [1966]). Here, plaintiff brought an action against both OB/GYN and Szary, among others. Although plaintiff subsequently settled with Szary, he specifically reserved his right to maintain his action against OB/GYN and the other defendants on the theories of both active negligence and respondeat superior. As the jury verdict established that the only active negligence was on the part of Szary, liability on the part of OB/GYN was solely vicarious. As such, Supreme Court did not err in awarding judgment as a matter of law in favor of OB/GYN on its indemnification claim against Szary (see Ditingo v Dreyfuss, 27 AD3d at 1026-1027).*fn4

Nevertheless, we agree with Szary's contention that OB/GYN's insurer, PRI, should be barred from invoking the equitable remedy of common-law indemnification due to its unclean hands. Although not raised in Supreme Court, this argument flows directly from our decision in Elacqua II and, therefore, was previously unavailable to Szary. Moreover, as this issue concerns public policy implications regarding an insurer's obligations and the consequences of failing to live up to those obligations (see Elacqua v Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers, 52 AD3d 886 [2008], supra; Elacqua v Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers, 21 AD3d 702 [2005], supra), we are compelled to address the argument (see Matter of Niagara Wheatfield Adm'rs Assn. [Niagara Wheatfield Cent. School Dist.], 44 NY2d 68, 72 [1978]; Pesta v City of Johnstown, 53 AD3d 884, 886-887 [2008]; Matter of Heslin v City of Cohoes, 74 AD2d 393, 396 [1980], revd on other grounds 53 NY2d 903 [1981]).

PRI seeks indemnification against Szary on behalf of OB/GYN through subrogation. Both subrogation (see Dominion Ins. Co., Ltd. v State of New York, 305 AD2d 779, 781 [2003]; Loctite VSI v Chemfab N.Y., 268 AD2d 869, 871 [2000]) and implied indemnification (see Mas v Two Bridges Assoc., 75 NY2d 680, 690 [1990]; McDermott v City of New York, 50 NY2d at 216-217; State of New York v Posillico, Inc., 277 AD2d 753, 754 [2000]) are equitable causes of action. The purpose of these equitable remedies is to shift a debt or obligation to a party who more properly should be accountable in order to prevent unjust enrichment and an unfair result (see State of New York v Stewart's Ice Cream Co., 64 NY2d 83, 88 [1984]; State of New York v Posillico, Inc., 277 AD2d at 754; Phillips v Young Men's Christian Assn., 215 AD2d 825, 827 [1995]). However, equitable remediesare barred by the doctrine of unclean hands where the party seeking to assert them "has committed some unconscionable act that is 'directly related to the subject matter in litigation' and has injured the party attempting to invoke the doctrine" (PenneCom B.V. v Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., 372 F3d 488, 493 [2d Cir 2004], quoting Weiss v Mayflower Doughnut Corp., 1 NY2d 310, 316 [1956]; see Hickland v Hickland, 100 AD2d 643, 645 [1984], appeal dismissed 63 NY2d 951 [1984]; see also Sardanis v Sumitomo Corp., 282 AD2d 322, 324 [2001]). Additionally, public policy precludes indemnification for those who commit intentional torts or active negligence (see Town of Massena v ...

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