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Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The Case of the Bad Fall

Otha Stewart had been living with the effects of a stroke for 15 years when she began regularly attending an adult day care center operated by the University of Mississippi Medical Center. A van service run by the city of Jackson picked up Stewart, who was paralyzed along the right side of her body and needed a brace on her right leg and a four-pronged cane to walk, and brought her to the center and back home.

The incident

Stewart used the van service for four years without a problem, until one day in August 1997, when a substitute driver, Doris Spiller, picked her up at home. On arrival at the day care center, Spiller helped Stewart off the van and made sure she was steady, according to Spiller. As Spiller turned to help another passenger get off the van, Stewart began to walk toward the center but after a few steps, started to fall. Spiller reached out for her, but she was too late. Both women fell to the ground, and Stewart hit her head on the pavement.

Stewart was taken to the emergency room and released after doctors determined that she had no swelling in her head or elevated blood pressure. Her daughter, Emma Womack, was told to watch her for several days.

The diagnosis

Although three days later Stewart was “still hurting and her head and legs were still bothering her,” Womack said, she decided to go back to the center. There, Stewart fell in the bathroom, but was unhurt and stayed for the rest of the day. At home that night, Stewart could not sleep and her head hurt. The next morning she was disoriented and could not keep her breakfast down.

Her daughter called an ambulance to take her to the emergency room, and she was released with prescriptions for pain relief and muscle relaxers. Stewart’s continuing complaints led her daughter to take her to another doctor for further tests. Don Gibson, M.D., a geriatric specialist, told Womack that her mother had suffered another massive stroke, “far worse than the one she had in the 1970s,” according to Womack.

She said …

Stewart sued the city of Jackson for negligence, asserting that her stroke was caused by the fall she took getting off the van. Stewart argued that the city had a responsibility to ensure her safety and an obligation to train all its drivers, even substitutes. Stewart told the court that Spiller should have received special training in helping older passengers. If she had, Spiller would not have left Stewart unattended after helping her off the van.

Stewart argued the stroke that was triggered when she fell led to her rapid decline. At the trial, Calvin Ramsey, M.D., Stewart’s family physician, said that the fall “caused a lump, contusions, [and] ended up with a stroke which changed her whole life.”

Stewart demanded the city pay damages for the effects of her stroke.

The city said …

The city of Jackson argued that even if the van service, and specifically Spiller, caused Stewart’s fall, the city was not liable for damages from the stroke because the law requires the injury to be foreseeable. Spiller would have had to know in advance that Stewart’s fall could cause a stroke.

In addition, the city argued that strokes are medical conditions, not normally caused by a fall. The city’s expert physician testified that “it would be extremely uncommon, almost unheard of for a minor fall to cause a stroke.”

Should Jackson, Miss., have to pay for Otha Stewart’s fall? How would you decide?

Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.