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Justices Rule Against Doctor In Malpractice Dispute

Florida Supreme Court
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday sided with the family of a child who had to undergo a kidney transplant in a medical-malpractice case that centered on questions about witness testimony.

The Miami-Dade County case stemmed from the child, Monica Gutierrez, needing a transplant in 2007 because of chronic kidney disease.

The child’s parents sued pediatrician Jose Luis Vargas, alleging that he had failed to diagnose her with a kidney disease known as C1q nephropathy, which caused severe damage, the Supreme Court ruling said. Vargas argued that she suffered from a different disease that could not have been diagnosed sooner.

After a trial, the family was awarded a $4.1 million judgment. But Vargas appealed, contending, in part, that the trial judge had improperly allowed Gutierrez’s attorneys to present testimony from multiple expert witnesses in the same medical specialty areas --- in violation of a pretrial order limiting testimony to one expert in each specialty area.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal agreed with Vargas and ordered a new trial. But the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, overturned the appeals-court decision. The Supreme Court concluded that pathologists Victor Pardo and Philip Ruiz testified as treating physicians and not as expert witnesses, a key distinction.

“Dr. Pardo and Dr. Ruiz may never have stood at Monica’s hospital bedside, but they assisted with Monica’s care by investigating the pathology of her condition and diagnosing the disease based on those investigations,” said the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and joined by justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

But justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, in two dissenting opinions, argued that the Supreme Court didn’t have a basis to take up the case. They said the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision in the Gutierrez case did not conflict with a 4th District Court of Appeal ruling in a separate case involving physician testimony. Gutierrez’s attorneys cited a conflict as a reason for the Supreme Court to weigh in.