Doctor’s Help to an Ill Juror Causes a Mistrial

Jack v. Booth, — N.W.2d — (Iowa 2015), 2015 WL 292051

Judge Learned Hand knew what he was talking about when he wrote that he dreaded litigation more than sickness and taxes. But even he could not envision the following case:

A juror faints in the middle of a medical malpractice trial against two physicians. One of the physicians rushes to assist the juror, who quickly recovers and gets excused from the case. The trial court interviews the remaining jurors regarding the impact of this incident and denies the plaintiffs’ motion for mistrial. After trial, the jury exonerates both physicians, and the trial court allows this verdict to stand. The court of appeals, however, reverses the verdict and orders a new trial as to both physicians.

Was it a right decision?

The Iowa Supreme Court, to which the physician who did not help the ill juror petitioned for further review, decided that it was not. The Court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it allowed the jury verdict to stand as to the physician who had not rendered medical assistance. The Court did not believe that “one physician defendant’s actions engendered a sense of undue goodwill and respect in the jury toward the medical profession generally” nor was it willing to consider such a possibility “a sufficient basis for overturning the district court’s on-the-scene exercise of discretion.” Based on these holdings, the Court reinstated the jury’s verdict for the physician who rendered no medical assistance to the stricken juror.

Remarkably, this case was not unique. Four court decisions have previously dealt with the question whether a new medical-malpractice trial should be ordered when a physician defendant treats a juror during trial: Campbell v. Fox, 498 N.E.2d 1145, 1147 (Ill. 1986); Haukedahl v. St. Luke’s Hosp., No. L–92–011, 1993 WL 496681, at *1, *3 (Ohio Ct.App. Dec. 3, 1993); Heidt v. Argani, 214 P.3d 1255, 1259 (Mont. 2009); Reome v. Cortland Memorial Hospital, 543 N.Y.S.2d 552, 553–54 (N.Y.App.Div.1989). The Iowa Supreme Court decided that the case at bar was “distinguishable from the foregoing malpractice cases [because they] involved a single injury and claims for that injury against both the doctor who treated the plaintiff and the facility where the treatment took place” whereas in the case at bar “[t]he jury was asked to and did determine each defendant’s negligence separately without any weighing of comparative fault.”