Preservation of the integrity of the judicial process means that jurors should only weigh that evidence which is considered relevant to the case. Extraneous information could be unfairly prejudicial. It’s the judge’s job to act as referee to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Usually, the question of what can and cannot be heard by jurors is decided long before the personal injury claim goes to court. Numerous pretrial hearings will be held to hammer out any disputes with regard to what evidence is pertinent.
In some cases, evidence that is deemed inappropriate for the jury still makes its way into the courtroom, either due to rogue questioning by an attorney or misunderstanding of a witness or some other oversight. In these situations, the court might determine there are grounds for a mistrial or a retrial.
Judges are loathe to declare mistrials or retrials, given the time and expense that goes into each trial. However, sometimes the violation is so egregious there is no alternative.
That was what happened recently in Mottershaw v. Ledbetter, a medical malpractice lawsuit that was reviewed by the Alabama Supreme Court.
According to court records a woman underwent a CT scan of her sinuses in 2007. Following that procedure, a radiologist reviewed the scan and failed to detect a cancerous mass in the woman’s sinus cavity. Two weeks later, she underwent another scan, and there again, a radiologist did not detect the cancerous mass.
Four months later, that same woman underwent an MRI of her head. It was at this time that a radiologist reading the scans found cancer in the patient’s brain. Soon after, the woman underwent treatment for the cancer. However, those treatments were unsuccessful, and she died the following year.
The administrator of the patient’s estate sued a number of health care providers on behalf of the deceased woman, alleging medical malpractice and wrongful death. It was alleged that the health care providers failed to offer a timely diagnosis of the patient’s cancer, and therefore breached the applicable standard of care.
Eventually, all but two of the defendants were dismissed.
During a pretrial motion, the plaintiff filed a motion in limine seeking to bar all references to indications that other health care providers aside from the defendants had also failed to detect her nasal cancer. The court granted this motion.
The case went to trial. At the trial, the defense attorney made reference to the fact that another set of scans were conducted two weeks after the defendant’s scan. At that point, the plaintiff attorney requested to approach the bench and off-record discussion was held. The defense said his case was “gutted” if he couldn’t mention the other scans, but the trial judge reiterated his earlier stance.
Then later in the trial, the defense admitted evidence pertaining to the later scan. The plaintiff attorney reminded the court that a redaction would need to be done. However, as it was later revealed, the evidence was not properly redacted before it went to the jury.
During deliberations, the jury submitted a question regarding that later test – the one they weren’t supposed to know anything about. The judge responded to the jury by saying that all relevant evidence had been given to the jury. The jury found in favor of the defendant doctors.
It wasn’t until the plaintiff attorney reviewed the action copies of what was sent to the jury room that she learned the documents had not been properly redacted and the jury had considered evidence that they should not have been allowed to consider.
The plaintiff requested a near trial. Following a hearing, the court granted this request.
The defense appealed, but the state supreme court upheld the earlier ruling. It was determined that the unredacted documents were considered prejudicial to the plaintiff and they were barred by the pretrial motion.
While not every misconduct or oversight requires a new trial, some inevitably do. In this case, the patient’s loved ones will get another chance to pursue justice.
Burton A. Padove handles personal injury matters throughout northern Indiana, including Gary, Hammond and Calumet City. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.
Mottershaw v. Ledbetter, Jan. 17, 2014, Alabama Supreme Court
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