Superior Court Judge Rocanelli Grants New Trial Because of Faulty Jury Instruction

981In Lisowski, et al. v. Bayhealth Medical Center, Judge Rocanelli granted the Plaintiffs’ Motion for a New Trial in a medical negligence action.  After an eight day trial, the jury found that Bayhealth had committed medical negligence but that the negligence did not proximately cause the death at issue.

The trial judge granted the new trial, finding that the jury instruction regarding proximate causation was confusing, inaccurate, and appeared to have undermined the jury’s ability to reach a verdict.  The parties agreed on including the following language regarding proximate causation:

  • A party’s negligence, by itself, is not enough to impose legal responsibility on that party Something more is needed: the party’s negligence must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence to be a proximate cause of the injury.
  • Proximate cause is a cause that directly produces the harm, and but for which the harm would not have occurred.  A proximate cause brings about, or helps to bring about, the injury, and it must have been necessary to the result.

Bayhealth, however, asked the Court to further instruct the jury that: “An action is not the proximate cause of an event or condition if that event or condition would have resulted without the negligence.”  Based upon Bayhealth’s representations that this language was included in the Court’s pattern jury instructions, and over Plaintiffs’ objections, the Court eventually did instruct the jury as Bayhealth requested.  It appears, however, that Bayhealth’s proposed addition is not, in fact, in the pattern jury instructions.

During their deliberations, the jury sent a note expressing their confusion regarding proximate causation and asked the Court to “specify or expand” upon the language Bayhealth had convinced the Court to include.  The trial judge explained to the judge that it could not “expand” upon the language and could only reread it.  The jury, thereafter, found that Bayhealth was negligent but that its negligence was not the proximate cause of the death at issue.

Upon Plaintiffs’ motion, the Court has Ordered a new trial due to the inclusion of Bayhealth’s proposed language.  The trial judge concluded that the jury instruction incorrectly referred to an “event” and a “condition” instead of an “injury” or “harm.”  Her Honor distinguished this case from prior cases where the trial judge granted a new trial on a mere “gut feeling” that the instruction confused the jury.  Here, the note from the jury demonstrated conclusively that they were confused.

Accordingly, the trial judge exercised her “sound discretion in the interest of preventing a miscarriage of justice.”

The Court’s Order is available here.

Blake A. Bennett

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