In its opinion filed on November 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Alabama (“Alabama Supreme Court”) held that the trial judge should have granted the defendants’ motion for mistrial during jury deliberations in an Alabama medical malpractice trial because the trial judge had improperly communicated with the jury out of the presence of the parties and their attorneys during its deliberations.
The plaintiff was the surviving wife of a patient who had undergone a kidney stone removal procedure at a local Alabama hospital during which he suffered a heart attack. The husband was revived but the heart attack caused him to suffer hypoxic encephalopathy that left him in a nonresponsive state. He was transferred to another hospital and then transferred back to the original hospital, where he died.
The Alabama Medical Malpractice Allegations
The patient’s wife filed an Alabama medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit against various medical providers, alleging that the applicable standard of care was breached by failing to position her husband properly during his kidney stone removal procedure that caused his blood to be unable to circulate properly, which in turn caused his heart attack and hypoxic encephalopathy; that one of the defendant physicians breached the applicable standard of care by prescribing Rocephin, an antibiotic, to treat an infection her husband was developing, despite her husband’s documented allergy to Ancef, which, like Rocephin, is in a class of antibiotics called cephalosporins, and that the administration of Rocephin caused her husband to develop a severe allergic reaction known as toxic epidermal necrolysis (“TEN”) that led to sepsis, which, in turn, caused his death; and, that the defendant hospital breached the applicable standard of care by failing to train its nurses to check for contraindications to medications.
The Alabama Medical Malpractice Trial
The Alabama medical malpractice wrongful death trial lasted from September 8, 2014, through October 3, 2014. After closing arguments, the trial court instructed the jury and sent it to deliberate. The jury returned a verdict in favor of one of the defendant physicians but awarded the plaintiff $100,000 against the other defendant physician and $1,300,000 against the defendant hospital.
On the third day of the jury’s deliberations, the attorneys for all three defendants moved for a mistrial, stating in support of their motion that “we do know and we learned yesterday that the jury asked questions about whether the verdict had to be unanimous, burden of proof, and then, ultimately, the third question where we were involved, in terms of what the evidence was on whether the Rocephin caused the death” (the judges law clerk allegedly had entered the jury room and had discussions with the jurors, telling them that their verdict must be unanimous and that there could be no hung jury; the trial judge also communicated with the jury without the parties or their attorneys being present). The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for mistrial.
The Alabama Supreme Court stated that the dispositive issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred in denying the motions for a new trial based on the communications between the trial court and the jury that occurred outside the presence of the parties and counsel.
The Alabama Supreme Court stated that it appeared that the jury had asked questions about the burden of proof and about whether the verdict had to be unanimous, that the trial court had answered those questions, and that the trial court informed the parties and counsel after the fact.
The Alabama Supreme Court stated that there is no evidence indicating that the trial court attempted to contact counsel or that it had an “overruling necessity” for failing to do so, and held that under the circumstances, it had no choice but to reverse the judgments against the defendant physician and the defendant hospital and to remand the case for a new trial (“we should treat such communications as ‘conclusively prejudicial’ being a deprivation of the constitutional right to a fair trial to which every party litigant is entitled”).
Source Ross v. Marion, No. 1140604; Noland Hospital Birmingham, LLC, and Noland Health Services, Inc. v. Anita Marion, No. 1140605.
If you or a family member may have suffered injury as a result of medical negligence that occurred in a hospital in Alabama or in another U.S. state, you should promptly consult with an Alabama medical malpractice lawyer (or a medical malpractice attorney in your state) who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
Turn to us when you don’t know where to turn.