Law360 (February 4, 2021, 10:27 PM EST) — The Los Angeles-based production company for CBS’ “The Doctors” must face negligence claims in Florida state court over an alleged botched buttocks reduction surgery it arranged in connection with the television show, a Miami-based judge ruled Thursday.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Gina Beovides denied Stage 29 Productions LLC’s motion to dismiss after finding its extensive communications with parties in Florida to arrange the surgery, which was performed at a Miami plastic surgeon’s facility, give her personal jurisdiction to hear Jenelle Butler and her husband’s claims against the company.
“Although Stage 29 was not physically present in Florida, its extensive and frequent contacts with Florida in connection with Mrs. Butler’s surgery over the course of four months compel the conclusion that it purposely availed itself of the privilege of conducting business activities here,” Judge Beovides said in her order.
According to case records, Jenelle Butler initially reached out to “The Doctors” about her desire to have injected silicone removed. While appearing on an episode in October 2017, she accepted an offer to have the procedure performed for free by Dr. Constantino G. Mendieta, whom Stage 29 solicited.
Stage 29 arranged Butler’s flight and hotel for the trip to Miami and communicated with Mendieta in advance of the procedure. The company also hired a crew to film the January 2018 surgery and remained involved in Butler’s care after the procedure as well, according to the order.
The Butlers, who are Georgia residents, filed their suit in state court in Miami in January 2020, claiming Jenelle Butler suffered “horrendous” injuries, including excessive bleeding that led to substantial dead tissue, scarring and disfigurement and required multiple additional reconstructive surgeries.
They brought a medical malpractice claim against Mendieta and accused Stage 29 of negligent selection and negligent undertaking for its hiring of the doctor.
As part of their claims, the Butlers alleged that Stage 29 had assumed a duty by sending Butler a medical release form to sign stating the surgery would be performed according to “appropriate professional standards” and that she would be given “clear and specific information” about the risks of the procedure and have “appropriate” informed consent, according to the order.
Stage 29 moved for dismissal based on arguments the Florida state court lacked personal jurisdiction over it and that Florida was not the proper venue, but it dropped the latter argument during a hearing in December, the order said.
Florida’s long-arm statute gives the state personal jurisdiction over Stage 29 for causes of action “arising from” “committing a tortious act within this state,” according to the order.
In her analysis, Judge Beovides said she was required under the law to determine if the complaint alleged sufficient facts to bring the action within Florida’s jurisdiction and if Stage 29 had sufficient contacts to satisfy the company’s due process rights.
She rejected Stage 29’s contention that jurisdiction hinged on finding that its communications to Florida themselves were tortious. Instead, she sided with the Butlers’ argument that the law requires them to show a causal connection between Stage 29’s communications and the alleged wrongful act.
In support of Florida having jurisdiction over their negligent selection claim, the Butlers pointed to nine emails and telephone communications Stage 29 delivered to Florida, including its initial email soliciting Mendieta to perform the surgery on Butler and an email sending the contract between the company and the doctor, which he signed in Florida, according to the order.
“These communications manifest the very act of ‘selection’ that forms an element of the cause of action, and therefore bear a strong causal relation to the alleged tort as alleged,” Judge Beovides said.
She also noted that the communications themselves were allegedly negligent because the Butlers claimed that Stage 29’s drafting of the contract contributed to Mendieta performing a riskier procedure than was necessary.
In support of the negligent undertaking claim, the Butlers pointed to Stage 29’s emailing the medical release form to Butler in Florida to sign the day before the surgery.
“Because the cause of action ‘would depend upon proof of either the existence or the content of’ this communication into Florida, and the claim arises out of the communication, the court determines that the exercise of personal jurisdiction is appropriate,” Judge Beovides said.
Judge Beovides also found that Stage 29’s alleged contacts with Florida were sufficient that making it stand trial in the state would not violate its due process rights.
“Stage 29 cannot fairly complain of the burden of litigating in Florida after it orchestrated an entire transaction to take place in Florida which is alleged to have foreseeably caused injury here,” Judge Beovides said. “Stage 29’s contacts with Florida do not evince only ‘minimal affiliation with or connection with the forum’ such that exercise of personal jurisdiction would be unduly burdensome.”
Judge Beovides’ ruling was the latest obstacle the Butlers have overcome in what has already been a hard-fought case, their attorney Stephen Rosenthal of Podhurst Orseck PA told Law360.
“This ruling completes a trifecta of procedural victories for the Butlers against Stage 29, which has now had three different courts reject three separate procedural defenses: removal to federal court (remanded), anti-SLAPP motion in California (denied), and jurisdictional defense in Florida (denied),” Rosenthal said in an email. “We look forward to proving the merits of the Butlers’ case in Florida.”
Counsel for Stage 29 did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, and counsel for Mendieta said he had no comment on the matter.
The Butlers are represented by Stephen F. Rosenthal and Kristina Infante of Podhurst Orseck PA.
Stage 29 is represented by Sanford L. Bohrer of Holland & Knight LLP.
Mendieta is represented by Patrick R. Sullivan of Lubell & Rosen.
The case is Butler et al. v. Stage 29 Productions LLC et al., case number 2020-903-CA-01, in the Circuit Court for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida.
–Editing by Ellen Johnson.
Update: This story has been updated to include a response from Mendieta’s counsel.
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