Friday, July 21, 2006

Fresh Law

The Iowa Supreme Court has two new decisions out this morning.

Facts: Gaspar Fidel Gonzalez, Jr. worked in the psychiatric unit of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as a psychiatric nursing assistant, “[w]ith supervision from a Registered Nurse, performs specific nursing tasks to assist members of the nursing team in providing care and monitoring of psychiatric patients.” During the course and scope of his duties, an allegation arose that he touched the genitals of a female patient. On the basis of these allegations, the State charged him with violations of Iowa Code sections 709.15(1)(a), (b), (f)(3) and 709.15(4), which deal with sexual abuse by a counselor or therapist.

Issue: Whether Gonzalez' conduct was outside the scope of Iowa Code section 709.15 and/or the statute is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad as applied, based on the premise that he did not directly provide treatment, assessment, or counseling to patients.

Analysis and Conclusion: A “counselor or therapist” is defined by the Code as
a physician, psychologist, nurse, professional counselor, social worker, marriage or family therapist, alcohol or drug counselor, member of the clergy, or any other person, whether or not licensed or registered by the state, who provides or purports to provide mental health services.
. . . .
“‘Mental health service’ means the treatment, assessment, or counseling of another person for a cognitive, behavioral, emotional, mental, or social dysfunction, including an intrapersonal or interpersonal dysfunction.”
The Court noted that while they strictly construe criminal statutes with doubts resolved in the accused’s favor, the interpretation of a statute requires reading statute in its entirety, not just isolated words or phrases, for a reasonable interpretation that best achieves the statute’s purpose and avoids absurd results. In examining the statute, the Court noted it was clear that the State intended any person who provides mental health services, including treatment, assessment, or counseling, to fall within its scope. The Court then noted the dictionary definitions of these words:
The dictionary defines “treatment” as “the action or manner of treating a patient medically or surgically”; “treat” means “to care for (as a patient or part of the body) medically or surgically,” “deal with by medical or surgical means,” and “give a medical treatment to.” Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary 2434-35 (2002). The term “assessment” means “an appraisal or evaluation (as of merit).” Id. at 131. The term “counseling” means
a practice or professional service designed to guide an individual to a better understanding of his problems and potentialities by utilizing modern psychological principles and methods esp. in collecting case history data, using various techniques of the personal interview, and testing interests and aptitudes.
The Court found that Gonzalez' duties did in fact fit the intended parameters:
Gonzalez’s role as a psychiatric nursing assistant is embraced by the legislature’s use of these terms. Gonzalez provided “treatment” to the patients because he performed nursing tasks to assist in providing care of psychiatric patients, such as establishing therapeutic relationships, providing for a therapeutic environment, and participating in planning patient care. He provided “assessment” of the patients because he performed nursing tasks to assist in monitoring psychiatric patients, such as documenting patient behavior and identifying material to report to the registered nurse. The treatment and assessment took place in the course of Gonzalez’s working relationship with the female patient while she was in the psychiatric unit. Gonzalez’s provision of such mental health services qualifies him as a “counselor or therapist” for purposes of Iowa Code section 709.15. Thus, the facts the State has alleged in the trial information and attached minutes charge Gonzalez with the crime of sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist as a matter of law.
An important procedural side note: The Court reminded the district court of the rules regarding Motions to Dismiss the Trial Information. Essentially, Trial Informations are to be considered rough outlines explaining the gist of the charges against the accused. The motion to dismiss is used to allege that the TI is in and of itself improper - that the Information as written does not conform to the definition of a crime as outlined under Iowa law. If the TI conforms on its face, the factual issues as to whether or not the incidents occurred as alleged are to be addressed at trial. In this case, the district court went beyond these bounds and held an evidentiary hearing as to whether or not Gonzalez' duties were that of a counselor or therapist, something which did not escape the Supreme Court's notice:
[I]t is improper for the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing on a motion to dismiss based on a claim that the facts alleged in the trial information and attached minutes do not constitute the offense charged in the trial information. In this circumstance, the only relevant inquiry by the court is whether the facts the State has alleged in the trial information and attached minutes charge a crime as a matter of law. To conduct an evidentiary hearing only wastes valuable judicial resources that the court can use for other matters requiring such a hearing.
Finally, the Court noted that the statute itself was not unconstitutionally vague as applied:
Any person who renders “treatment, assessment, or counseling of another person for a cognitive, behavioral, emotional, mental, or social dysfunction, including an intrapersonal or interpersonal dysfunction” provides “ ‘[m]ental health service.’ ” Id. § 709.15(1)(d). There is no doubt the language of section 709.15 applies to the services Gonzalez is alleged to have provided to the female patient under the facts in the trial information and attached minutes. Therefore, we conclude Gonzalez’s vagueness claim is without merit.

Facts: The facts are rather detailed, and are also fairly important to understanding the analysis, so I'll copy/paste rather than paraphrase.
In June of 1999, Delbert Parish (the plaintiff’s brother) and Shelley Tatro purchased a Jumpking fourteen-foot trampoline for use in their backyard. They set up the trampoline, and Delbert tried it out by attempting a somersault. He nearly fell off the trampoline, prompting Delbert and Shelley to purchase a “fun ring”—a netlike enclosure with one entry point onto the trampoline. While the plaintiff was visiting his brother on September 11, 1999, he attempted to do a back somersault on the trampoline, but he landed on his head and was rendered a quadriplegic. In August 2001 Parish filed suit, on his own behalf and on behalf of his minor son, against Jumpking, as designer and manufacturer of the trampoline and its enclosure.
. . . .
The trampoline in this case, and its surrounding fun ring, together provide numerous warnings. Three warnings are placed permanently on the pad of the trampoline and advise the user:
Do not land on head or neck.
Paralysis or death can result, even if you land in the middle of the trampoline mat (bed).
To reduce the chance of landing on your head or neck, do not do somersaults (flips).
Only one person at a time on trampoline.
Multiple jumpers increase the chances of loss of control, collision, and falling off.
This can result in broken head, neck, back, or leg.
This trampoline is not recommended for children under 6 years of age.

These warnings also include nationally recognized warning symbols cautioning against those activities. During manufacture, Jumpking also places one warning on each of the eight legs of the trampoline, and the design is such that the only way to assemble the trampoline is to have these warnings facing out so they are visible to the user. Jumpking further manufactures two printed (nonpictorial) warnings that are sewn onto the trampoline bed itself. It also provides a warning placard for the owner to affix to the trampoline that contains both the pictorial warning and the language regarding safe use of the trampoline, and it provides an owner’s manual that contains the warnings as found on the trampoline as well as additional warnings regarding supervision and education. It is undisputed that these warnings exceed the warnings required by the American Society for Testing and Material (ASTM).
Warnings are also provided with the fun ring. Jumpking provides eight warning stickers to be placed on the legs of the fun ring during assembly, and Shelley Tatro recalls installing them as directed. Jumpking provided extra warnings on the fun ring because it was aware that the fun ring may partially cover warnings on the legs of the trampoline. It also provides a warning placard with the fun ring to be placed at the door of the fun ring containing the pictorial warnings and additional language required by the ASTM. The fun ring comes with a separate owner’s manual that provides additional warnings.

Issues and Procedural History: The lower court had granted summary judgment to the manufacturer, basically saying that there was no genuine conflicts about the facts that were material to the claim, and that these facts showed that the plaintiff didn't meet the burden of proof necessary to win his case as a matter of law. Therefore, in assessing the claim on appeal, the Supreme Court had to give every benefit of any doubt to the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued in his appeal of the summary judgment that there were genuine issues of material fact on the claim that the trampoline was defectively designed, and also on the adequacy of Jumpking’s warnings, and that the “open and obvious” defense was not applicable to a design-defect case, and in any event, there was an issue of material fact as to its application to his case.
Analysis and Conclusion: Regarding the design defect, the Court noted that under a design-defect claim, a plaintiff is essentially arguing that, even though the product meets the manufacturer’s design specifications, the specifications themselves create unreasonable risks. This normally requires a plaintiff to prove that an alternative design for the product would have been safer. In this case, however, the plaintiff didn't offer a better design, instead arguing that trampolines are inherently dangerous - that no design is truly safe:
He contends there is no safe way to use a trampoline in a backyard, and it must be used only by properly trained and qualified participants under supervision.
The Court disagreed:
It is undisputed that trampolines are common and widely distributed products. In fact, the evidence showed approximately fourteen million people use them. Even data produced by the plaintiff in his resistance to summary judgment showed that in 2002 only 2.1% of trampolines were associated with injuries, and only one-half of one percent of jumpers were injured. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, based on 1997 and 1998 injury data, concluded trampolines ranked twelfth among recreational use products in terms of injuries. They rated below such common activities as basketball, bicycle riding, football, soccer, and skating.

The benefits of trampolining include use in cardiovascular workouts and other medical treatments, including “bouncing” therapy for children with cystic fibrosis. Trampolining obviously provides valuable exercise and entertainment.

We conclude that the plaintiff has failed to generate a genuine issue of fact sufficient to except this product from the alternative-design requirement of section 2(b), and the plaintiff’s design-defect claim under that section must therefore be rejected.
Regarding the warnings, the Court found that the evidence was such that even giving the plaintiff every benefit of the doubt, a reasonable fact finder could not conclude that the defendant’s warnings were inadequate. It did not reach the issue of whether or not the dangers of a trampoline should have been open and obvious to the plaintiff: because the warnings were so adequate that no reasonable juror could have found otherwise, and because the product and design didn't qualify as inherently dangerous, the Court found that there was no way that the plaintiff could have proven his case to a jury.

In other words, the trampoline, while not inherently dangerous, still entailed some risks. They may have been obvious risks, but even if they were not "open and obvious" so that any reasonable person should've seen them, the plaintiff was clearly warned about them and should have known about them regardless. Thus, the trampoline manufacturers did not breach any duty to warn him of the risks of using their product and his injury was therefore his own fault, not theirs.

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