The family of Tina McAdams sued Medtronic after her death following a spinal surgery, in which a morphine-dispensing pain pump was implanted. McAdams was discharged with the pump and instructions to continue taking oral doses of morphine; she died of morphine toxicity 3 days after leaving the hospital, according to court documents. The McAdams family also sued Gary Williams, the Medtronic employee who programmed the pain pump in the operating room, the hospital and several of its staff members, according to the documents.
During discovery, the McAdams family alleged, a Medtronic lawyer improperly contacted an expert witness, Dr. Wayne Snodgrass, that the family had hired for the lawsuit. The family also accused Medtronic of mishandling the pain pump that was taken out of McAdams at autopsy, spoiling it as evidence for the trial.
The family sought sanctions for both of the alleged transgressions, asking the Lone Star State’s 278th Judicial District Court for Walker County to prevent the defendants from calling "any expert witnesses or introduce other evidence that Tina’s death was not caused by an overdose from the pump," according to the documents. The family also asked the lower court to order reimbursement for their legal team’s travel to Minnesota to examine the pain pump, "a jury instruction regarding spoliation of evidence and the exclusion of testimony regarding the amount of fluid that was or could have been in the pump after explantation," according to court records.
The lower court granted the sanctions, prompting an appeal from Medtronic, arguing that the ruling imposed "death penalty" sanctions that killed its case with no means of appeal. A 3-judge panel of the Texas 10th Court of Appeals agreed in part, unanimously ruling that the contact between Medtronic’s outside counsel and Snodgrass occurred without either Medtronic’s or Williams’ knowledge and that the lower court failed to consider lesser sanctions as required by law.
"We conclude that the order imposes death penalty sanctions because it adjudicates the central issue to the case, that being that the pump caused the morphine toxicity which resulted in the death of Tina McAdams," wrote Judge Tom Gray. "The record demonstrates that counsel for Medtronic was the person who made contact with Snodgrass and who was responsible for providing him with privileged work product information from Medtronic. The record does not indicate that Medtronic or Williams were involved in the allegedly improper contacts with Snodgrass or that either of them was aware of Snodgrass’s identity."
But the appeals court upheld the 2nd set of sanctions imposed for the spoliation of evidence claim. The pump explanted from Tina McAdams at autopsy was stored at the post-mortem facility for about 4 years until an agreement was struck to examine the device, according to the records. The autopsy center’s administrator testified that when she shipped the pump to Medtronic in a plastic bag, it contained fluid that the pump expelled after explantation, the records show. When the pump arrived at Medtronic’s facility in May 2012, "an employee opened the box and when he realized what the contents were, he resealed the box and placed it in storage. The employee notified counsel for Medtronic, who did not inform the McAdamses’ counsel," according to the record.
The fluid was gone and there was no apparent leakage into the box holding it when the parties met at Medtronic’s facility in December of that year, according to the documents. Unable to measure or test the liquid, the McAdams contended that the fluid was lost due to Medtronic’s negligence or intent and asked the lower court to impose monetary sanctions, the spoliation instruction and the exclusion of testimony based on the loss of the liquid.
"The order was entered as a sanction based on the alleged discovery abuse by Medtronic by opening the box containing the pump and liquid, and by failing to preserve the liquid within the box," according to the records. "Medtronic has not established that remedy by appeal is inadequate to review this order relating to the spoliation instruction or the monetary damages. The trial court’s jury instruction on spoliation does not constitute a death penalty sanction because it only creates a rebuttable presumption regarding the fluid in the pump. Likewise we do not find that the trial court’s order regarding monetary sanctions or the limitation on evidence regarding the fluid that was or could have been in the pump constitutes a death penalty sanction, and therefore, Medtronic has an adequate remedy by appeal of that issue."