In its opinion filed on March 15, 2017, the Supreme Court of Louisiana (“Louisiana Supreme Court”) affirmed the trial court’s granting a new trial to the Louisiana medical malpractice plaintiffs after the jury had rendered a defense verdict, finding that the trial court had not abused its discretion in granting the new trial.
The Louisiana medical malpractice plaintiffs were the parents of a seven-month-old infant who died after the defendant doctor failed to transfer the sick child from the rural hospital where her parents had brought her, to a hospital that could provide a higher level of care that the infant required, which the plaintiffs alleged was a breach of the standard of care that led to the infant’s death due to myocarditis.
The Louisiana Medical Review Panel had unanimously found that the defendant doctor failed to meet the standard of care, stating: “The child presented, as documented in the record, as lethargic, significantly tachycardic and tachypneic. The child was quite ill and this was not recognized in a timely manner throughout her ED stay and hospitalization. The child was rapidly decompensating and resuscitation was not aggressively undertaken. She should have transferred the child to a facility providing a higher level of care and expertise. The panel cannot determine what role these breaches in the standard of care played in the child’s demise. Panel defers to the expertise of a pediatric intensivist or pediatric cardiologist for that determination.”
Subsequently, the Louisiana medical malpractice jury ruled in favor of the defendant doctor by a vote of 9 to 3, finding that while the plaintiffs proved the standard of care, they failed to prove a breach of that standard. As a result, the Louisiana medical malpractice jury did not reach the questions of causation or damages.
The Plaintiffs filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”) or, alternatively, for a new trial. The district court granted the motion for JNOV and alternatively conditionally granted a new trial.
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s Decision
The Louisiana Supreme Court held that the district court had improperly granted the JNOV, stating that JNOV is only warranted when the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the trial court believes that reasonable persons could not arrive at a contrary verdict, not merely when there is a preponderance of evidence for the mover. JNOV should be denied if there is evidence opposed to the motion which is of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions. In deciding a motion for JNOV, the trial court should not evaluate the credibility of the witnesses, and all reasonable inferences or factual questions should be resolved in favor of the non-moving party, based upon the principle that when there is a jury, the jury is the trier of fact.
In the present case, the Louisiana Supreme Court stated that given the considerable disagreement among the medical experts, a reasonable person could have concluded that the plaintiffs did not establish a breach of the standard of care applicable to the defendant doctor by a preponderance of the evidence presented at trial, and therefore the district court granting JNOV was improper.
With regard to the district court granting a new trial to the plaintiffs, the Louisiana Supreme Court stated that La. C.C.P. art. 1972 provides the peremptory grounds for a new trial: (1) when the verdict or judgment appears clearly contrary to the law and evidence, (2) when the party has discovered, since the trial, evidence important to the cause, which he could not, with due diligence, have obtained before or during the trial, and (3) when the jury was bribed or has behaved improperly so that impartial justice has not been done.
The Louisiana Supreme Court stated that La. C.C.P. art. 1973 provides the trial court with discretionary authority to grant a new trial in any case if there is good ground therefor, except as otherwise provided by law, and when the trial judge is convinced by his examination of the facts that the judgment would result in a miscarriage of justice, a new trial should be ordered pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1973.
In the present case, the Louisiana Supreme Court stated that the district court’s reasons for granting a new trial can be reasonably construed as finding that the verdict appears clearly contrary to the law and the evidence under Article 1972(1), and that there is a good ground therefor under Article 1973.
A motion for a new trial requires a less stringent test than for a JNOV: the determination involves only a new trial and does not deprive the parties of their right to have all disputed issues resolved by a jury. Unlike the standard applicable to a JNOV, in considering whether to grant a new trial under La. C.C.P. art. 1972(1), a trial judge may evaluate the evidence without favoring either party and draw its own inferences and conclusions, and the district court has authority to evaluate witness credibility to determine whether the jury erred in giving too much credence to an unreliable witness.
Nonetheless, because a motion for new trial solely on the basis of being contrary to the evidence is directed squarely at the accuracy of the jury’s factual determinations, the jury’s verdict cannot be set aside on that ground if it is supportable by any fair interpretation of the evidence.
The applicable standard of review of a ruling on a motion for new trial is whether the district court abused its discretion. The Louisiana Supreme Court stated that, generally, the only requirement has been that the district court state an articulable reason or reasons as to why it is exercising its discretionary powers, and because the district court had done so in this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that the district court had not abused its discretion in granting a new trial to the Louisiana medical malpractice plaintiffs.
Source Pitts v. Louisiana Medical Mutual Insurance Company, 2016-C-1232.
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