PA Supreme Court Addresses “Error in Judgment” Jury Instructions in Medical Malpractice Cases
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that “error in judgment” jury instructions are prohibited in medical malpractice cases, ending a long-standing debate as to whether such an instruction should be permissible. In Passarello v. Grumbine, et al., 2014 WL 502490 (Pa. 2014), the Court was faced with the issue of whether the jury should ever be instructed that physicians are not liable for “errors of judgment” unless it is also proven that an error of judgment was the result of negligence.
The case involved the death of a two-month old infant and the defendant-physician’s failure to properly diagnose the infant’s viral infection of the heart. At trial, the defendant asserted that she had not deviated from the proper standard of care because her diagnosis and treatment “fit” with the symptoms presented. To that end, the defendant requested that the jury be instructed that “physicians are permitted a broad range of judgment in their professional duties and physicians are not liable for errors of judgment unless it’s proven that an error of judgment was the result of negligence.” Despite the objection of plaintiff’s counsel, the trial court acceded to the request and the jury was so instructed. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant and following the denial of post-trial motions pertaining to the above jury instruction, the plaintiff appealed.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, relying on its holding in Pringle v. Rapaport, 980 A.2d 159 (Pa. Super. 2009) (en banc), vacated the judgment and remanded to the trial court, holding that such an instruction should never be given as it erroneously suggests that a physician is not culpable for the negligent exercise of his or her judgment.
On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the defendant’s primary issue was whether the trial court had discretion to instruct the jury on “error of judgment” in medical malpractice claims. The Court began by noting that several jurisdictions had abolished the “error of judgment” instruction, primarily under the rationale that such instructions have a propensity to confuse a jury and are merely superfluous of other instructions that correctly set forth the standard of care to be applied in medical malpractice cases. The Court agreed with the rationale applied by other jurisdictions that the term itself implies that some types of physician negligence are not culpable. Furthermore, such instructions could lead a jury to believe that only those judgments made by the physician in “bad faith” are culpable, creating the problem of injecting a subjective element into an otherwise objective standard.
Ultimately, the Court affirmed the holding of the Superior Court and held that such “error in judgment” instructions should not be utilized in medical malpractice cases for the reasons above.