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Birth Injury Case Spurs Questions About Med Mal Jury Instructions

The Post-Gazette discussed the latest legal developments in a birth injury case that involves a controversial legal issue. The family in the case filed a wrongful death lawsuit after their son died from “diffuse acute viral myocarditis.” The ailment is a virus that infects the heart muscles. The family in the case alleged that they contacted the defendant doctor several times after his birth explaining their belief that something was wrong with him. The child was crying after feeding, was barely eating, was coughing, and was vomiting.

The doctor in the case told the family that the child’s symptoms likely indicated gastroesophageal reflux-he prescribed medications. The conditions did not improve. The family rushed him to the emergency room not long after where he was found to be in severe respiratory distress. He died two days later.

This particular case went to trial, where a jury found in favor of the defense.

The Appeal
After the verdict the family appealed. Appeals are hard to win, because there has to be clear legal errors made in the original case for the appellate court to overrule a lower court decision. An appeal cannot be made simply because one doesn’t like the verdict-there must be explicit grounds for the appeal.

In this case the family’s medical malpractice attorney explained that there was a clear error regarding the jury instructions read by the trial judge. Jury instructions are crucial elements of a trial. The instructions offer clear and precise instructions on what the law is in a particular case. The jury is then instructed to make fact determinations based on the evidence that they hear, applying those facts to the law to reach a verdict. If the law is not properly read to them via instructions or is unnecessarily misleading, then that is often grounds for an appeal to be granted.

“Error of Judgment” Instructions
The problematic instructions here involved the trial judge reading information about “error of judgment.” In particular the jury was instructed that doctor’s “are not liable for errors of judgment unless it’s proven that an error of judgment was the result of negligence.” This is an incredibly misleading statement, because on first blush it suggests that when doctors use their judgment incorrectly they should not be held liable.

The law of negligence applicable in birth injury cases-all medical malpractice cases-does not absolve doctors of all responsibility for poor judgment. Instead, the law of negligence involves the comparison of the doctor’s conduct with that of reasonable professionals in the area. The subjective mindset of the doctor is not necessarily the issue.

The appellate court in this case eventually ordered the parents a new trial, because the incorrect jury instructions tainted the decision at trial. The defense appealed that appellate decision, and the case is now sitting before the state’s Supreme Court (of Pennsylvania).

This situation is a testament to the complexity of some of the legal issues in these cases. It is imperative to have a legal professional in your corner who can take these cases to trial and ensure that fairness reigns throughout the process.

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