Merit Decision: Much Ado About Very Little in a Medical Malpractice Case. Hayward v. Summa Health Sys./Akron City Hosp.

On May 8, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Hayward v. Summa Health Sys./Akron City Hosp., 2014-Ohio-1913. I’m going to quote the headnote verbatim on what the Court held in this 6-1 decision authored by Justice Kennedy.  Understandably, there is no syllabus in this case.

“When a jury’s answers to interrogatories make it clear that the jurors found that the defendant was not negligent and the jury’s verdict is consistent with that finding, a remote-cause jury instruction, even if improper, cannot be found to have misled the jury in a manner materially affecting a substantial right.”

Justice Pfeifer dissented on the ground that the Court never should have accepted this case, which is of no public or general interest.  I’m right there with him on this one.

This case was argued November 20, 2013.

Case Background

During surgery to remove a portion of diseased intestine, Theresa Hayward suffered a femoral nerve injury caused by the placement of the retractor.  While nerve injuries are a known risk of this procedure, the parties in the case (and their experts) differed on whether the injury was just an unavoidable bad result, or malpractice. Hayward has some permanent impairment from this injury.

At trial, the jury was given a “remote cause” instruction. The jury returned a verdict for the defense. The jury was also given interrogatories on negligence and on proximate cause.  The judge’s instructions on answering the interrogatories was confusing, at best.  The jury answered both sets of interrogatories, finding no negligence and no proximate cause.  A general verdict was entered in favor of the defense.

The Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed the judgment entered on the jury’s verdict.  The Appeals Court found the remote causation instruction unwarranted by the evidence. It also found that the jury interrogatories indicated the jury should answer the ones on causation only if the jury found one of the defendants negligent. The appeals court concluded that the fact that the jury answered all of the interrogatories anyway indicated confusion, and that the combination of the erroneous jury instruction and juror confusion materially affected the plaintiff’s substantial rights, and warranted a new trial.  Read the oral argument preview of the case here and the analysis of that argument here.

Merit Decision

Rarely do I blog that an opinion isn’t really worth reading, but this is one, except for those truly enamored of the minutiae of appellate procedure.

This case pretty much imploded at oral argument when defense counsel quoted the record as showing that the trial judge had instructed the jury to answer all four interrogatories, and the jurors did so. The majority opinion bears that out.

Key Precedent

R.C. 2309.59

In every stage of an action, the court shall disregard any error or defect in the pleadings or proceedings which does not affect the substantial rights of the adverse party. No final judgment or decree shall be reversed or affected by reason of such error or defect.

Civ. R. 61

The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.

The Remote Causation Jury Instruction

Although this instruction was clearly improper in this case, this was a non-issue for two reasons. Hayward objected when the judge told counsel he planned to give it at trial, but did not object to the instruction when it was given, even though the trial judge asked if the parties had any objections to the instructions they wanted to put on the record. Additionally, the propriety of the instruction on remote causation was not before the Court, which had declined jurisdiction on that issue.

The Trial Court’s Instruction on Answering Jury Interrogatories

The short version of this is that even though the trial court’s instructions on how to answer the jury interrogatories were confusing and contradictory, the jurors did not ask for clarification, and the parties did not object to how these instructions were given.  The record did bear out what defense counsel argued before the high court—that the trial court did instruct the jury to answer all four interrogatories—the two on negligence, and the two on proximate cause.  The Supreme Court drew very different conclusions from all of this than the appeals court did.

Where the Appeals Court Went Astray

The high court was quite critical of the appeals court here for not carefully considering the record, specifically ignoring the trial judge’s instruction to the jury to sign all four interrogatories. The court also found the record simply did not support the conclusion that the remote cause instruction caused any juror confusion.  “The Ninth District’s speculation that the remote-cause instruction spawned juror confusion materially affecting Hayward’s substantial rights was therefore erroneous,” wrote Kennedy. At oral argument, Chief Justice O’Connor began to question whether the appeals court had properly read the record.

No Prejudice Here to the Plaintiff

Here are the key findings by the Court on this:

  • The jury interrogatories were consistent with the general verdict for the defense.
  • Even an erroneous jury instruction might not be prejudicial enough to warrant reversal.  This one wasn’t. It just wasn’t that misleading or prejudicial.
  • The plaintiff expressed no concerns about juror confusion and made no objections during the proceedings
  • Nothing in the record suggests any connection between the remote cause jury instruction and the jury’s completion of the interrogatories or that the instruction caused any jury confusion.

Dissent

Justice Pfeifer would find the case was improvidently allowed.

Case Syllabus

None

Concluding Observations

As I indicated at the beginning of this post, this case was pretty much over at oral argument once defense counsel quoted from the record the instruction given by the trial judge to the jury to answer all four interrogatories. Both student contributor Beckie Campbell and I called this as a loss for the plaintiff.

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