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Tillotson v. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 24, 2017

Gary and Bethanne Tillotson, as Parents of Sean C. Tillotson, and Bethanne Tillotson, as Administratrix for the Estate of Sean C. Tillotson
v.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center Opinion No. 2017 DNH 015

          ORDER

          Landya McCafferty United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Bethanne and Gary Tillotson brought this wrongful-death suit against Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (“DHMC”) following the tragic death of their son, Sean Tillotson. The Tillotsons allege that DHMC doctors failed to identify and treat a large tumor in Sean's left kidney that led to his death. DHMC moves to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs lack standing to bring a wrongful-death action under New Hampshire law. The Tillotsons object. On January 19, 2017, the court heard oral argument on defendant's motion.

         Legal Standard

         Defendant brings its motion to dismiss for lack of standing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The First Circuit has noted that motions to dismiss for lack of standing are often treated as motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, “thus bringing them under the rubric of Rule 12(b)(6).” United States v. AVX Corp., 962 F.2d 108, 114 n.6 (1st Cir. 1992); see also McInnis-Misenor v. Me. Med. Ctr., 319 F.3d 63, 67 (1st Cir. 2003) (evaluating defendant's standing argument pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)).

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true, construe reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor, and “determine whether the factual allegations in the plaintiff's complaint set forth a plausible claim upon which relief may be granted.” Foley v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 772 F.3d 63, 71 (1st Cir. 2014) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         Background

         Sean Tillotson was first diagnosed with a benign calcified cyst in his left kidney when he was seven years old. Sean had annual follow-up examinations of the cyst when he was younger. On May 1, 2014, two months before his death, Sean experienced blood in his urine. He was admitted to the DHMC emergency department in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and doctors performed an ultrasound of his kidneys. After reviewing the ultrasound results, doctors determined that Sean's left kidney was “stable” and “unchanged” from previous exams. See doc. no. 1 at ¶ 13. DHMC did not conduct an extensive work-up after receiving the ultrasounds results, and Sean was discharged that same day.

         On June 30, 2014, Sean, then a 17-year-old high school student in Bradford, Vermont, was traveling to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to attend a youth leadership conference. Sean was changing planes at the Denver International Airport when he suddenly collapsed and died. An autopsy performed after Sean's death revealed that he had a large malignant tumor in his left kidney. Sean died after part of the tumor dislodged and passed through blood vessels into his lungs and heart.

         The Tillotsons allege that DHMC's interpretation of the May 1, 2014 kidney ultrasound was “grossly inaccurate.” Id. at ¶ 17. According to the Tillotsons, the ultrasound images demonstrate a large mass on Sean's left kidney measuring at least seven centimeters, which is omitted from the radiological report. The Tillotsons allege that proper interpretation of the ultrasound would have led to identification of the malignant tumor in Sean's left kidney. The Tillotsons allege that the tumor required immediate further assessment and probable surgical intervention. With proper treatment, the Tillotsons allege that Sean would not have suffered the pulmonary embolism that caused his death.

         On August 14, 2014, the Orange County District Probate Division of the Vermont Superior Court appointed Sean's mother, Bethanne Tillotson, as the administrator of Sean's estate. On June 29, 2016, the Tillotsons, both Vermont residents, filed this wrongful-death suit against DHMC under New Hampshire law. Doc. no. 1. The complaint asserts two claims: (1) a wrongful-death claim by Bethanne Tillotson, as the administrator of Sean's estate (Count I), [1] and (2) a wrongful-death claim by Bethanne and Gary Tillotson, as Sean's parents, for loss of familial relationship under RSA 556:12, III (Count II).

         Discussion

         DHMC contends that a Vermont-appointed administrator is restricted to filing a wrongful-death claim exclusively under Vermont's wrongful-death statute. See 14 V.S.A. § 1492. Thus, DHMC argues that Bethanne Tillotson lacks standing to bring a wrongful-death suit under New Hampshire state law. Additionally, DHMC argues that plaintiffs cannot bring a claim for loss of familial relationship because they are not New Hampshire residents.

         I. Count I

         Bethanne Tillotson was appointed administrator of Sean C. Tillotson's estate under Vermont law. DHMC contends that a conflict exists between the relevant New Hampshire and Vermont wrongful-death statutes, [2] and Vermont courts lack jurisdiction to distribute damages awarded to a Vermont estate under New Hampshire's statute. See doc. no. 10 at 8-9. DHMC argues that, as a Vermont-appointed administrator, Bethanne Tillotson may only seek damages under Vermont's wrongful-death statute. See 14 V.S.A. ยง 1492. ...


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