“Error in Judgment” Jury Charge in Medical Malpractice Cases

In any sort of injury trial – but specifically those involving alleged medical malpractice – judges must be extremely careful when instructing jurors on the laws of negligence.
Our medical malpractice lawyers in Charlotte recognize that in these incredibly complex cases, it is crucial that the jury be given clear instruction on the law.

Commonly referred to as a judge’s “charge” to the jury, these instructions will succinctly spell out the issues of the case, define any words or terms that may not be familiar to the jury and discuss the standard of proof that should be applied in each case.

Any misstatements or errors in these jury instructions can be grounds for a new trial, which is what happened in the medical malpractice case of Passarello v. Grumbine, where the “error in judgment” charge given to the jury was called into question.

This was a matter stemmed from the death of an infant boy.

The chronology was basically this: the child was born in late May. In late July, his parents grew increasingly concerned about his health. He began only taking four ounces of formula at a time – about half of what he normally ate. He cried after feedings and he had a cough. They reported these concerns to their pediatrician.

Two days after that, the parents called the doctor’s office to report that the child was vomiting, fussy and tired after eating. The doctor called them back later, and these same symptoms were reported. The doctor indicated she thought he might be suffering from a condition called pyloric stenosis, which is an opening from the stomach to the small intestine. She indicated that a swallow test might be in order. However, developments subsequent to that call ruled out that potential diagnosis, and the test was not ordered.

The next day, the baby was brought in for an office visit. the parents again noted his cough and continued vomiting. He had a follow-up visit the next day. Again, it was reported he was vomiting, fuzzy, not sleeping and wheezy.

The doctor believed he may have gastroesophogeal reflux. She wrote a prescription for medication for this condition. She also immunized him against other diseases.

The next day, the parents called to report his formula intake had dropped to just three ounces. He screamed in pain. He had few wet diapers. He had a fever, despite being given medicine. The doctor assured the parents it was likely a reaction to the immunizations.

The next day, the symptoms had not abated and the parents took the baby to the emergency room. There, the emergency room physician found him to be in respiratory distress. He was intubated and placed on a ventilator. Despite this, he died.

An autopsy revealed the baby had suffered from a viral heart infection.

The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against both the doctor and her employer, alleging that she deviated from the appropriate standard of care in failing to order the appropriate tests in order to diagnose their baby’s true condition.

The defendants argued that doctors don’t guarantee cures, and a poor outcome is not necessarily the result of negligence.

Prior to the close of trial, the defendants offered proposed versions of the jury charge that indicated that “physicians are not liable for errors of judgment unless it is proven that the error of judgment was the result of negligence.”

The plaintiff’s attorney objected to this language, but the judge overruled. The jury decided in favor of the doctor.

The plaintiff filed a post-trial motion arguing that the language in the jury charge was inherently confusing and inappropriate for the case at hand. While that motion was pending, the state’s Superior Court issued a ruling in another case, Pringle v. Rapaport, in which it was decided that this “error in judgment” charge wrongly suggests to the jury that a doctor is not culpable for the negligent exercise of his or her judgment.

The trial judge later denied the post-trial motion in Passarello, and the case was appealed to the Superior Court. There, defendants argued that the precedent in Pringle shouldn’t be applied because it was decided after post-trial motions were filed.

The Superior court disagreed, vacated the earlier verdict and remanded the case back to the lower court for a retrial.

The defendants appealed to the state court, which affirmed the Superior Court’s findings.

In the end, this results in one less hurdle for victims of medical negligence.

Contact the Charlotte medical malpractice lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Passarello v. Grumbine, Feb. 7, 2014, Pennsylvania Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Hicks v. Zondag – Physician Liability in Prescription Overdose Deaths, Feb. 12, 2014, Charlotte Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog

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