The Arizona Court of Appeals Division One (“Arizona Appellate Court”) held in its Memorandum Decision filed on July 14, 2020 that the trial court did not err in granting a new trial to an Arizona medical malpractice defendant because the defendant was wrongfully denied a jury instruction regarding its affirmative defense that the decedent was under the influence.
The Underlying Facts
For much of his life, Jay Helmreich (“Helmreich”) struggled with a rare physical disorder, a mental disorder, and substance abuse. To address the substance abuse problem, he began treatment at the defendant, Arizona’s Healing Center LLC (“Center”), in April 2013. While there, Helmreich was examined, treated, and prescribed medications by Dr. Ravi Chandiramani. He was released from treatment in July, after which he intermittently engaged in outpatient therapy through the Center. But by September, he was beginning to relapse and unsuccessfully sought readmission. On December 15, Helmreich died from respiratory arrest caused by “an acute heroin overdose.” Testing revealed that cocaine was found in his blood and urine.
After a 12-day trial, the Arizona medical malpractice wrongful death jury found in favor of the plaintiff for medical negligence, consumer fraud, and negligent hiring, training, or supervision. The jury awarded the plaintiff four million dollars and found Helmreich fifty-five percent at fault, apportioning the other forty-five percent of fault among the defendants. The Center filed a motion for new trial, supported by several trial transcript excerpts, asserting that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s proposed § 12-711 jury instruction. The Center argued the trial court’s reasoning for denying the instruction conflicted with the facts and the law, and asserted the instruction was required for several reasons, one of which was that the evidence presented at trial showed Helmreich’s “death occurred after using heroin [and] that he likely would have used the cocaine at some point prior to using heroin.”
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for new trial, noting it “was persuaded by the reasoning” set forth by the Center and that “the [c]ourt erred by refusing to instruct the jury on A.R.S. § 12-711.” The plaintiff appealed.
Arizona Appellate Court Memorandum Decision
A.R.S. § 12-711
The Center’s proposed jury instruction, which was denied by the trial court, stated “Affirmative Defense when Decedent is Under the Influence[:] If the Defendants prove that Jay Helmreich was under the influence of a drug and, as a result of that influence, Jay Helmreich was at least fifty percent (50%) responsible for the incident or event that caused his death, you may find Defendants not liable to Plaintiffs.”
The trial court denied the defendants’ requested jury instruction, concluding “that the intoxication is a causative factor and that is not what we have on the facts of this case . . . [T]here was an injection, [and] almost simultaneous death.”
The Arizona Appellate Court stated that Arizona law has adopted the comparative fault approach to torts, meaning damages are allocated proportionally, and plaintiffs can only recover damages to the degree they are not at fault. A.R.S. § 12-2505. But § 12-711 modifies the traditional comparative fault approach by providing that if the plaintiff or decedent was at least fifty percent responsible, the finder of fact may find the defendant not liable.
The Arizona Appellate Court stated “[h]ere, AHC [the Center] requested an instruction based on its affirmative defense alleged under § 12-711; that defense is not encompassed within the comparative fault instructions. Helmreich’s argument that the jury instructions that were given, which only cover traditional comparative fault principles, “adequately covered the substance” of § 12-711 is incorrect … in AHC’s motion for new trial, the AHC defendants cited three examples of facts, asserting those facts supported their defense that the decedent’s drug use rendered him at least fifty percent responsible for his death. Helmreich has not rebutted those facts or provided transcripts detailing evidence that changes the context proposed by AHC. Accordingly, Helmreich has not proved that the superior court abused its discretion in concluding the trial evidence supported an instruction under § 12-711.”
Source Helmreich v. Arizona’s Healing Center LLC, No. 1 CA-CV 19-0435.
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