Jody Blatchley, the former coach of New Zealand’s Olympic snowboard team, and his wife, Delfina Blatchley, reached a settlement in a medical malpractice lawsuit against St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Colorado following a lengthy legal battle that initially culminated in a $6.3 million win for the plaintiffs which was later reversed. The lawsuit stemmed from alleged negligent post-surgical care Jody Blatchley received after suffering a snowboarding injury in 2013. Blatchley developed acute compartment syndrome, a condition that can lead to nerve and muscle tissue damage if not treated promptly post-surgery.[i] Jody Blatchley’s case unfortunately became fulminant, making it irreversible. The medical team allegedly failed to timely diagnose his compartment syndrome.
At trial in April of 2018, a jury delivered the multi-million dollar verdict which was subsequently appealed. A Tenth Circuit panel identified an error in the trial judge’s instructions, leading to reversal of that verdict and the setting of a retrial. Notice of the settlement came less than a week before the start of the scheduled retrial of the case. The notice did not provide settlement details, but revisiting the Tenth Circuit decision highlights the importance of both jury instructions and fault allocation.
Following reversal, counsel for St. Anthony’s sought to secure summary judgment. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico rejected the motion, ruling in favor of the Blatchleys.[ii] Although the Blatchleys were entitled to full coverage of their medical expenses and 80% of their lost wages under New Zealand law, the judge relied on Colorado’s precedent allowing Medicaid recipients, like the Blatchleys, to pursue additional recovery (sometimes termed double recovery) despite receiving funds from their home government. Judge Wiley Y. Daniel denied St. Anthony’s motion for a new trial and the medical center appealed that decision. The trial court judge granted the Blatchleys motion to strike St. Anthony’s designation of nonparties wholly or partially at fault agreeing that it did not meet Colorado’s notice requirements.
The original verdict was one of the nation’s top medical malpractice verdicts in the nation at the time (though Nuclear Verdicts® continue to rise both in frequency and severity, totaling more than $13B in 2023 alone[iii]). The Tenth Circuit panel determined that the jury should have been informed about the pretrial settlements with surgeons and physician assistants. This error allowed the jury to allocate blame incorrectly, as it barred the jury from assigning fault to the surgeons and physician assistants.
The panel noted in their unpublished decision that the trial court’s faulty instruction in the case paved the way for the Blatchleys to recover the full amount of their damages from St. Anthony’s despite the possibility that a jury might have allocated fault to the codefendants that settled. The appellate decision noted the error contravened the purpose of Colorado’s law, which is to “ensure that a party that is found liable will not be responsible for more than its fair share of the damages.[iv]” The panel emphasized that the trial court’s error resulted in St. Anthony’s being held liable for an amount that may well have reflected more than its degree of fault.
A breakdown of the original award included $418,000 for previous medical care, $190,000 for lost wages, and nearly $500,000 for pain and suffering related to a diminished quality of life. Additionally, future damages were awarded, comprising $937,000 for medical expenses, $1.14 million for future lost wages, and $1.5 million for future pain and suffering, projected until the year 2063. Delfina Blatchley was also granted compensation, receiving $50,000 for loss of consortium and nearly $450,000 for potential future noneconomic damages arising from her husband’s injury.
Allocation of fault is a critical decision for juries, especially in cases that have the potential for a nuclear result. Instruction error is an area ripe for mistakes as jury instructions (though standardized through model instructions in most states, including Colorado) are frequently convoluted. The appellate decision in this case hinged on the importance of the word “or” in the controlling caselaw, reminding counsel everywhere that the devil really is in the details.
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