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Gomez v. Rodriguez-Wilson

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

April 8, 2016

MARÍA GÓ MEZ, ET AL., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
DR. JORGE E. RODRÍGUEZ-WILSON, ET AL., Defendants, Appellees

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. Carmen Consuelo Cerezo, U.S. District Judge.

         Rafael E. Garcí a-Rodón, with whom Carlos A. Del Valle-Cruz and Juan H. Saavedra-Castro, were on brief, for appellants.

         Richard Schell-Asad IV, with whom Rebeca Vé lez-Gómez, were on brief, for appellee Dr. Jorge E. Rodrí guez-Wilson.

         Before Torruella, Lipez, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

         TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiffs-Appellants Marí a Gómez and Marí a Migdalia Ojeda-Morales appeal the district court's order vacating the jury award, as well as the district court's order declining attorneys' fees in their favor. Because we find that the district court improperly vacated the jury award and because we find that Defendant-Appellee Dr. Jorge E. Rodrí guez-Wilson (" Dr. Rodrí guez" ) engaged in obstinate conduct during trial, we must vacate the district court's ruling and remand this case to the district court.

         I. Background

         Mr. Enrique Ojeda-Morales (" Mr. Ojeda" ) injured his knee while driving and was referred to Dr. Rodrí guez at Doctors' Center Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On November 19, 2008, Dr. Rodrí guez performed surgery on Mr. Ojeda's right knee. After the surgery, Mr. Ojeda's condition did not improve and his leg began to turn purple. Mr. Ojeda remained in Doctors' Center Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, under the care of Dr. Roberto Ruiz-López (" Dr. Ruiz" ). Subsequently, Mr. Ojeda was transferred to Doctors' Center Hospital in Manatí, Puerto Rico, where portions of his right leg were amputated on two separate occasions. However, Mr. Ojeda's condition continued to deteriorate and he passed away while at Doctors' Center Hospital in Manatí .

         After Mr. Ojeda's death, his widow, Marí a Gómez, and his sister, Marí a Migdalia Ojeda-Morales, (collectively " Appellants" ) filed suit against Doctors' Center Hospital San Juan, Inc.; Doctors' Center Hospital, Inc.; Dr. Rodrí guez; and Dr. Ruiz alleging that Mr. Ojeda perished as a result of their negligent care.[1]

         The parties entered into a confidential settlement agreement. As a result, the district court dismissed the suit without the imposition of costs or attorneys' fees.

         However, Dr. Rodrí guez failed to comply with the settlement agreement when he did not deposit his share with the district court. According to the terms of the settlement agreement, Dr. Rodrí guez's failure to comply rendered the entire agreement null and void. Doctors' Center Hospital San Juan, Inc. and Doctors' Center Hospital, Inc., entered into a second settlement agreement with Appellants. Similarly, Dr. Ruiz also entered into a second settlement agreement with Appellants. Both settlement agreements released Doctors' Center Hospital San Juan, Inc.; Doctors' Center Hospital, Inc.; and Dr. Ruiz (collectively the " settling parties" ) of any and all liability. Importantly, the settlement agreements clarified that the releases did not apply to any non-settling co-defendants and that the agreements did not constitute an admission of liability. Further, the settlement agreements made clear that should the settling defendants be found responsible for a percentage of fault, Appellants agreed to indemnify and exonerate them. Lastly, the settlement agreements clearly severed any joint and several liability amongst the parties and stated that there may not be any " leveling" amongst the parties. Appellants received a total of $700,000 from their settlement with the settling parties.

         The district court dismissed the settling parties from the case and Dr. Rodrí guez remained as the sole defendant. Dr. Rodrí guez proceeded to trial and a jury determined that his negligent care was the proximate cause of Mr. Ojeda's death and awarded Appellants a total of $475,000. Accordingly, the district court issued a judgment in favor of Appellants.

         Dr. Rodrí guez sought to alter the judgment on the ground that the jury's damages award should be offset against the settlement amounts. In other words, Dr. Rodrí guez sought to offset the judgment of $475,000 against the $700,000 that Appellants received from the settling parties. The district court granted Dr. Rodrí guez's request and vacated the jury award.

         The district court also refused the Appellants' request for attorneys' fees due to Dr. Rodrí guez's obstinate conduct, as permitted by Puerto Rico law.[2] Notably, the district court did not provide any reasoning to support its conclusion that Dr. Rodrí guez was not obstinate. This timely appeal followed.

         II. Analysis

         A. ...


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