Georgia Court Affirms Adverse Jury Verdict in Stillborn Birth Appeal

Although many medical malpractice suits involve troubling facts, those underlying Armstrong v. Gynecology & Obstetrics of Dekalb, a recent decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals, are especially gloomy. The plaintiffs in this case brought a medical malpractice suit against Gynecology & Obstetrics of DeKalb, P.C. and three physicians who worked for the medical practice after their daughter arrived stillborn. The plaintiffs argued that the physicians acted negligently in managing their prenatal care and that the stillborn birth was caused by an avoidable placental abruption that occurred one day before the scheduled delivery by cesarean section. At the trial level, the case did go before a jury, which found in favor of all the defendants. However, the plaintiffs appealed, positing three reasons why the trial court erred in not granting their motion for a new trial.
First, the plaintiffs argued that jury misconduct associated with the use of cellphones to research four legal terms during jury deliberations was improper and warranted a new trial. After these allegations were raised at trial, the trial court made a thorough inquiry, which included sequestered interviews with each juror before counsel. After this inquiry, the trial court found that although the use of the cellphones was improper, it did not have an effect on the verdict and thus did not warrant a new trial. Although the influence of extraneous information can undermine the validity of a jury verdict, one must nonetheless demonstrate that the extraneous information had a prejudicial effect on the verdict rendered. Moreover, the appeals court noted that its review of the trial court determination was subject to an abuse of discretion standard of review. Accordingly, a party on appeal must demonstrate harm or prejudice flowing from the juror’s actions in order for an appeals court to overturn the trial court’s determination. In the instant case, there was no testimony elicited regarding either the substance of the definitions found or any reliance on those definitions in rendering the verdict. Thus, the plaintiffs did not make the requisite showing of prejudice or harm necessary to warrant a new trial.
Second, the plaintiff argued that the trial court jury instruction regarding “hindsight” was improper, since relevant risk factors were known to the physicians prior to the placental abruption and stillbirth. Again, the Court of Appeals found the argument unavailing. Generally, a trial court must instruct the jury on all issues applicable to the case, and when there is at least “slight evidence” on an issue, it is not error for a trial court to provide instruction. Mercker v. Abend, 260 Ga. App. 836, 839 (1) (581 SE2d 351) (2003). In this case, the court noted that even the plaintiff’s expert witness acknowledged that placental abruptions are unpredictable. Therefore, there was more than slight evidence that the plaintiffs’ claims of negligent assessment of risk were based on after-acquired information, and thus instruction regarding hindsight was applicable and justified.

Third, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred in not allowing rebuttal testimony from an expert witness enlisted by the plaintiffs. The plaintiff sought to include testimony concerning pathology slides that showed the aforementioned abruption and evidence of fetal stress. Defense counsel immediately objected, since rebuttal testimony, as its name would suggest, can only be included to rebut evidence presented. In this case, the defense had proffered no testimony regarding pathology and did not dispute the occurrence of the abruption. Admissibility of rebuttal testimony is generally within the sound discretion of the trial court and is subject to an abuse of discretion standard of review. Applying this standard, the appeals court found that the evidence the plaintiffs sought to introduce was not properly proffered to rebut any evidence presented in the defense’s case. Since the existence of the abruption was not in dispute and pathology was not in otherwise in contention, the proposed evidence would not refute anything that had already been presented. Therefore, there was no abuse of discretion.
As this case clearly demonstrates, one difficulty that arises on appeal is the standard of review applicable to most trial court decision-making. Given that the “abuse of discretion” standard is incredibly difficult to overcome, it is essential that litigants do their best to convince trial judges of the correctness of their arguments, rather than depending on an appeals court to eventually overturn. If you’ve been injured as a result of medical malpractice, you should enlist the help of counsel with the necessary trial court experience. The Atlanta injury attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have extensive experience in trial court representation and can provide the trial-level advocacy skills your case demands. To learn more about our attorneys and how they can help in your possible suit, click here or call 1-800-487-8669.

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