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Condon v. St. Alexius Medical Center

Supreme Court of North Dakota

April 22, 2019

Chenille Condon, Plaintiff and Appellee
St. Alexius Medical Center and Allen Michael Booth, M.D., Defendants and Appellants

          Appeal from the District Court of Burleigh County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Cynthia M. Feland, Judge.

          Thomas J. Conlin (argued), Stacy D. Stennes (appeared), Minneapolis, MN, and Robert V. Bolinske Jr. (on brief), Bismarck, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Tracy Vigness Kolb (argued), Bismarck, ND, and Rodger A. Hagen (on brief), Minneapolis, MN, for defendants and appellants.

          Matthew A. Sagsveen, Office of Attorney General, Bismarck, ND, for amicus curiae State of North Dakota.

          Courtney Koebele, Bismarck, ND, Mark A. Behrens and Cary Silverman, Washington, DC, for amicus curiae North Dakota Medical Association.

          Timothy Q. Purdon, Bismarck, ND, and Glenn A. Danas, Los Angeles, CA, for amicus curiae North Dakota Association for Justice.

          JENSEN, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Dr. Allen Booth and St. Alexius Medical Center appeal from a district court judgment finding North Dakota's noneconomic damages cap in medical malpractice cases unconstitutional. Dr. Booth and St. Alexius also argue the district court erred in denying a motion for a new trial. We reverse in part, affirm in part, and remand for a reduction of the award of noneconomic damages.


         [¶2] On May 29, 2012, Chenille Condon gave birth to a child at St. Alexius Medical Center. Within hours, Condon complained about chest discomfort and shortness of breath. A pulmonary embolism was suspected and testing was ordered in an effort to diagnose the issue. Testing revealed multiple pulmonary nodules in Condon's mediastinum. Condon was eventually referred to Dr. Booth for a mediastinoscopy for the purpose of collecting a larger tissue sample. The larger tissue sample was necessary for a definitive diagnosis.

         [¶3] Not long into the procedure, an injury occurred to Condon's right innominate artery, resulting in life-threatening bleeding. Dr. Booth called for the assistance of a surgeon, and they repaired the injured vessel. After surgery, Condon was placed in intensive care where she had a stroke. The stroke was related to the injury that occurred during surgery. Condon underwent rehabilitation for several months.

         [¶4] Condon filed a medical malpractice claim against Dr. Booth. After nine days of proceedings, the jury returned a verdict finding negligence and awarding Condon $265, 000 in past economic loss, $1.735-million in future economic loss, $150, 000 in past noneconomic loss, and $1.350-million in future noneconomic loss.

         [¶5] Dr. Booth sought a reduction of noneconomic damages under N.D.C.C. § 32-42-02, the noneconomic damages cap in medical malpractice actions, and a reduction of the past economic damages pursuant to the collateral-source rule, N.D.C.C. § 32-03.2-06. Condon opposed the reductions and challenged the constitutionality of N.D.C.C. § 32-42-02. The district court granted Dr. Booth's motion with regard to the collateral-source reduction and, after finding N.D.C.C. § 32-42-02 unconstitutional on equal-protection grounds, denied the remainder of Dr. Booth's motion.

         [¶6] Dr. Booth also sought a new trial or, in the alternative, a reduction in the verdict. The district court denied the motion for a new trial, but granted the request to reduce the past-economic-loss award to $150, 000.


         [¶7] Dr. Booth argues the district court erred in holding N.D.C.C. § 32-42-02 to be unconstitutional. In determining whether a statute is constitutional, we have stated:

Whether a statute is unconstitutional is a question of law, which is fully reviewable on appeal. All regularly enacted statutes carry a strong presumption of constitutionality, which is conclusive unless the party challenging the statute clearly demonstrates that it contravenes the state or federal constitution. The justice, wisdom, necessity, utility and expediency of legislation are questions for legislative, and not for judicial determination. This Court exercises the power to declare legislation unconstitutional with great restraint. Under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 4, this Court shall not declare a legislative enactment unconstitutional unless at least four of the members of the court so decide.

Teigen v. State, 2008 ND 88, ¶ 7, 749 N.W.2d 505 (citations and quotations omitted).

         [¶8] "[A]n Act of the legislature is presumed to be correct and valid, and any doubt as to its constitutionality must, where possible, be resolved in favor of its validity." S. Valley Grain Dealers Ass'n v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 257 N.W.2d 425, 434 (N.D. 1977). "A statute enjoys a conclusive presumption of constitutionality unless it is clearly shown that it contravenes ...

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