Court of Appeals overturns multimillion-dollar ruling against Mooresville oral surgeon accused of affair with nurse
Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 2021
SALISBURY — The North Carolina Court of Appeals has overturned a $2.3 million verdict against a Mooresville oral surgeon accused of having an affair with a married nurse.
The court threw out the judgment last week after determining that Matthew Johnson, the doctor who allegedly engaged in the romantic and sexual relationship with his employee, did not receive proper notice of trial.
“The facts before us do not indicate that defendant was negligent or inattentive to his case,” Judge Fred Gore wrote in the ruling. “This is a case where defendant never received proper notice of trial. This court concludes that a failure to provide proper notice violated defendant’s due process rights and entitles him to a new trial.”
Gerald Steven Sprinkle Jr. filed a lawsuit for alienation of affection and criminal conversation against Johnson in March 2018 after learning of his wife’s years-long affair with the doctor.
Jana Sprinkle worked as a surgical assistant for 17 years at Johnson’s practice in Mooresville. According to court documents, the affair began in 2014 and lasted until 2018. During that time, Johnson was said to have provided Jana with Adderall and a cell phone for communicating with him while the two met at hotel rooms and Johnson’s house on Lake Norman to have sexual intercourse.
The affair was supposedly uncovered when an employee at Johnson’s practice saw an explicit picture on Johnson’s cell phone of the doctor and Jana engaging in a sexual act, court documents state.
While Gerald and Jana decided to reconcile, the affair resulted in Jana losing employment and caused Gerald to seek mental health treatment.
Gerald was able to seek monetary damages from Johnson for the infidelity because North Carolina is one of the few states in the country that allows a spouse to sue a third party for wrongful acts that deprived them of the love and affection of their spouse.
At the conclusion of a trial in Rowan County Superior Court in June 2019, during which Johnson was not present, a jury awarded Gerald $794,000 in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages for a total award of $2.29 million.
In an appeal to the state’s second-highest court, Johnson argued that he wasn’t present at the trial because he was unaware it was happening. Johnson said he learned of the trial afterward, when contacted by a reporter.
Johnson contended that he never received notification of his trial from his attorney, who unbeknownst to him, had withdrawn from the case before the trial occurred. He argued that the mailed notice of the trial was sent to a home address where he no longer resided.
“When I first took on the case and reviewed the court file, I was concerned that there was nothing to show that Dr. Johnson actually received notice of the date, time, and place of the trial,” said Rebecca K. Watts, the Charlotte-based attorney now representing Johnson. “A fundamental part of due process is notice of the date, time, and place of trial so that the defendant can appear and defend the case against him. Since that did not happen here, I believed that the judgment was not fairly entered against Dr. Johnson and that he deserved the right to defend himself against the plaintiff’s allegations.”
Furthermore, Johnson’s appeal asserted the court “abused its discretion in entering a pre-trial order without holding a pre-trial conference.” The pre-trial order contained stipulations and agreements, but it was not signed by Johnson or an attorney representing him.
The Court of Appeals agreed with Johnson’s argument. In a unanimous opinion in which Judge John Arrowood and Allegra Collins concurred, Gore wrote that Johnson “was entitled to a new trial because lack of adequate notice did not comport with the requirements of due process.”
From the day that the Court of Appeals announced its decision, it takes 20 days for the case to be released back to the trial court. After that, the trial process will start again and a new trial date would be set.