Does the refusal to settle claims by parents of a brain-damaged infant trigger the mandatory appointment of a guardian ad litem for their injured child? First DCA says NO.
Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center, Inc. v. Petersen, 2006 WL 88489 (Fla. 1st DCA Jan 17, 2006)
In this case the parents of a child apparently brain damaged during delivery filed a pre-suit petition to determine compensability under the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Compensation Act (the "Act," see F.S. §§ 766.301-766.316). At the conclusion of these administrative proceedings, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") awarded the parents lifetime medical expenses for their child, plus $100,000, plus reasonable expenses incurred in connection with the filing of their claim. The parents rejected this award and moved forward with filing their medical malpractice claims against the Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center ("TMRMC").
When counsel for the TMRMC learned of the parents intent to reject the ALJ's award and sue instead, they immediately filed an emergency motion for appointment of a guardian ad litem. The trial judge said no and they petitioned the First DCA for writ of certiorari seeking review of the trial court's non-final order. The First DCA upheld the trial court's decision on two grounds. First, the defendants failed to demonstrate that the child's parents were not acting in the best interests of their child. Second, in the absence of clear evidence indicating a conflict of interest, imposing a guardian ad litem would be a violation of the parents' constitutional privacy rights.
The following are excerpts from the linked-to opinion addressing the two grounds put forward by the First DCA as underlying its decision:
Lack of Conflict of Interest:
"TMRMC fails to demonstrate that the interests of the Petersens are so adverse to that of Jennifer as to require the appointment of a guardian ad litem. The mere decision to proceed in an attempt to gain fuller recovery for the child is not, even in the face of some risk, tantamount to an adverse interest. By filing the complaint for medical malpractice in circuit court, the Petersens sought monetary damages for bodily injury including pain and suffering, and other general damages. These claims are not adverse to Jennifer's interests. Indeed, the facts as presented indicate that the interests of Jennifer coincide fully with the interests of the parents. Cf. Mistretta v. Mistretta, 566 So.2d 836 (Fla. 5th DCA 1990) (holding that child's interests were properly represented by mother where mother sought payment of child support from former husband who held himself out to others as the child's father)." (Emphasis added.)
Constitutional Privacy Rights:
"The Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly held that natural parents have a right to make decisions about their child's welfare without interference by third parties. See generally Von Eiff v. Azicri, 720 So.2d 510 (Fla.1998). In Von Eiff, the Florida Supreme Court held that "[n]either the legislature nor the courts may properly intervene in parental decision-making absent significant harm to the child threatened by or resulting from those decisions." 720 So.2d at 514. As discussed above, TMRMC does not show that any significant harm to the child will result from the Petersens' decision to waive the compensation award under the Act and seek further damages in the circuit court action. TMRMC has merely shown that the Petersens' election of a civil remedy has some risk and does not preserve the guaranteed return of the administrative compensation award. This is an insufficient basis upon which to invade the Petersens' fundamental parental privacy rights." (Emphasis added.)