Idaho Supreme Court Reverses Medical Malpractice Defense Verdict Because Judge Impermissibly Questioned Defense Witness

The Supreme Court of the State of Idaho (“Idaho Supreme Court”) held in its opinion filed on March 22, 2021 in an Idaho medical malpractice case: “the district court’s questioning of Dr. Hancock was an abuse of discretion because it commented on the weight to be given to the Secols’ evidence and expressed an opinion as to the critical issue of liability in this case. Although the district court recognized that it had discretion to question the witness, it failed to act within the bounds of that discretion and acted inconsistently with applicable legal standards.”

The Underlying Facts

In late 2016, Damian Secol passed away from a rare form of cancer, T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma (“T-LBL”). Following his death, the Secols brought their Idaho medical malpractice action against Damian’s primary care providers—Kelly L. Dustin, D.O., Austin C. Gillette, M.D., and Fall River Medical, PLLC (collectively “Fall River”). Fall River called Dr. Jeffery D. Hancock, Damian’s treating oncologist, to testify concerning Damian’s treatment and whether his prognosis would have been different had he been diagnosed six weeks earlier.

Prior to trial, the Secols had filed a motion in limine to limit Dr. Hancock’s testimony to his observations and treatment of Damian, but the district court denied this motion. The Secols also objected multiple times to testimony from Dr. Hancock concerning the effect a six-week delay in diagnosis had on Damian’s prognosis. The district court overruled these objections. Following the Secols’ cross-examination of Dr. Hancock, and redirect examination by Fall River, the district court directly questioned Dr. Hancock in front of the jury concerning the treatment and diagnosis of T-LBL. The Secols conducted further cross-examination and moved to strike Dr. Hancock’s testimony as outside the scope of Damian’s treatment, which the district court again overruled.

The Secols moved the district court for a mistrial, arguing the judge’s questioning prevented a fair trial. The district court denied the motion. After the jury returned a verdict in Fall River’s favor, the Secols moved the district court for a new trial, which was also denied. The Secols appealed.

Idaho Supreme Court Opinion

Idaho Rule of Evidence 614(b) provides that a trial court “may examine a witness regardless of who calls the witness.” I.R.E. 614(b). However, exercise of this authority is fraught with the risk that the jury will be influenced in their deliberations by their perception of the court’s opinion of an issue. There is also a risk that the jury will attach undue significance to the subject matter of the court’s questions, for if the court thinks the issue important enough to inquire further of the witness, why should not the jury? This is why the discretion to question a witness is not unbounded, and a court exercising this power must not comment on the weight of the evidence or express an opinion as to the evidence relating to a critical issue in the case. Accordingly, a trial court’s questioning of a witness is limited to clarifying the evidence, controlling the orderly presentation of the evidence, confining counsel to evidentiary rulings, and preventing undue repetition of testimony.

The Idaho Supreme Court held: “We conclude that the district court’s questioning of Dr. Hancock was an abuse of discretion because it commented on the weight to be given to the Secols’ evidence and expressed an opinion as to the critical issue of liability in this case. Although the district court recognized that it had discretion to question the witness, it failed to act within the bounds of that discretion and acted inconsistently with applicable legal standards.”

The Idaho Supreme Court explained: “the district court’s questioning of Dr. Hancock exceeded the bounds of its discretion because it actively solicited impermissible testimony … not only was Dr. Hancock’s testimony in response to the district court’s questions prejudicial to the Secols, it lacked foundation. Fall River never made a showing that Dr. Hancock was familiar with the applicable standard of care nor did Fall River attempt to ask Dr. Hancock any questions in that regard … In essence, the district court’s questions provided a backdoor for an unqualified witness to offer standard of care opinions. As such, the district court exceeded the boundaries of its discretion by prompting Dr. Hancock to testify without foundation. The district court also acted inconsistently with the applicable legal standards by commenting on the weight to be afforded the Secols’ evidence.”

Source Secol v. Fall River Medical, PLLC, Docket No. 47149.

If you or a loved one may have been harmed as a result of medical malpractice in Idaho or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find an Idaho medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your medical negligence claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 7th, 2021 at 5:29 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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