Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Granting Of New Trial In Medical Malpractice Case Was Abuse Of Discretion

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Eastern District (“Pennsylvania Supreme Court”) held in it opinion dated December 22, 2021 in a medical malpractice case: “the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a mistrial based on a single, unanswered question proposed to an expert witness, that decision alone cannot later serve as the basis for granting a new trial.”

Underlying Facts

Craig Steltz, a former NFL football player, filed a Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawsuit against his former surgeon, alleging that the defendant surgeon was negligent in failing to diagnose and disclose the existence of a complete tear of the adductor tendon that occurred after the surgery (one musculoskeletal radiologist who reviewed the MRI concluded Steltz had scar tissue breakup, a normal postoperative finding, and not a new injury to his adductor muscle, but a second musculoskeletal radiologist who independently reviewed the MRI issued a report concluding the MRI showed a complete tear of the adductor tendon).

During the trial, the defense attorney engaged in the following exchange with a defense expert:

[Appellants’ counsel]: Dr. Zoga, how many musculoskeletal radiologists did you say there are in this country?

[Dr. Zoga]: I can only guess based on the membership of the Society of Skeletal Radiology. I did check yesterday. I believe the membership of the Society of Skeletal Radiology, which means radiologists who have to spend at least 50 percent of their clinical effort in the musculoskeletal arena, is about 950. I’m sure there are some others. I don’t even know how to guess that.

[Appellants’ counsel]: So 950 nationwide that spend about at least 50 percent of their time reviewing musculoskeletal images, that’s what you just told us?

[Dr. Zoga]: That’s correct.

[Appellants’ counsel]: So if you were to lump them altogether, those who spend 50 percent of their time and those like Dr. Read who spend only 5 to 10 percent of their time, how many musculoskeletal radiologists do you think there are in this country ballpark?

[Dr. Zoga]: So if the definition is radiologists who interpret musculoskeletal imaging, it has to be five thousand.

[Appellants’ counsel]: Five thousand. Five thousand of those radiologists and plaintiff couldn’t find one of them to come into this courtroom to support Dr. Read, did you know that?

[Steltz’s counsel]: Your Honor —

[Appellants’ counsel]: Not one, couldn’t find one?

[Steltz’s counsel]: Your Honor, I object and I make a motion.

The jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Thereafter, Steltz filed a timely post-trial motion asserting that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial because the effect of the defense attorney’s question to Dr. Zoga was so prejudicial that no jury instruction could adequately cure the prejudice. The trial court agreed with Steltz, concluding “[t]here was no curative instruction this [c]ourt could have delivered to the jury to fix the harm caused by [Appellants’] counsel’s egregious statement that not one musculoskeletal radiologist among the 5,000 who practice in the United States could be found to support [Dr. Read’s] reading of the MRI.” Additionally, the trial court concluded the question was prejudicial as it “had the potential to taint the jury’s perceptions of the case by insinuating that no musculoskeletal radiologist out of 5,000 could be found to testify in support of [Dr. Read’s] reading of the MRI, which [Appellants] had no right to present as a truth.” As such, the trial court granted Steltz’s request for a new trial. The defendants appealed.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated: “This Court’s standard of review over a trial court’s decision to grant or deny a new trial is whether the trial court abused its discretion … We engage in the same two-step analysis as the trial court: first determining whether a mistake occurred and, if so, whether the trial court erred in ruling on the request for a new trial … Our scope of review over the first prong is governed by the trial court’s rationale. Id. at 1122. If the trial court identifies the specific mistake or mistakes, our review is limited to its stated reason. Id. at 1123. Further, if the mistake involved a discretionary act, we review for an abuse of discretion; however, if it involved an error of law, we review for legal error. Id. “If there were no mistakes at trial, the appellate court must reverse a decision by the trial court to grant a new trial because the trial court cannot order a new trial where no error of law or abuse of discretion occurred.” Id. If an appellate court agrees that a mistake occurred, it proceeds to the second step and must determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling on the motion for a new trial. Id.”

In the case it was deciding, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated: “Viewed as a whole, Appellants’ counsel’s question focused on Steltz’s failure to present a radiology expert at trial to testify in support of Dr. Read. Thus, whether Steltz had obtained an expert report or listed an expert as a potential witness in his pretrial memorandum was outside the scope of the question Appellants’ counsel asked. Appellants’ counsel was not commenting on Steltz’s pretrial preparations or misrepresenting the fact that Steltz had notified Appellants he might present expert testimony in support of Dr. Read. Instead, Appellants’ counsel’s question attempted to highlight the fact that Steltz did not ultimately present such expert testimony, regardless of whether he had retained an expert in preparation for trial … Appellants’ counsel did not convey any untrue facts to the jury. The fact that Steltz did not present a radiology expert to testify at trial in support of Dr. Read was not untrue at the time Appellants’ counsel asked the question.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court further stated: “In addition to the circumstances in which the question was presented, as discussed above, we note several other factors that weigh against granting a new trial. First, after the defense rested its case, the trial court permitted Steltz to present rebuttal evidence. However, despite knowing that his case had been attacked for the failure to present an expert in support of Dr. Read, Steltz chose not to move to have Dr. Read certified as an expert or to present expert testimony in support of Dr. Read’s interpretation. Second, in Appellants’ counsel’s closing statement, he predictably argued that he presented musculoskeletal radiologists, Steltz did not present any witnesses to dispute those experts, and the reason Steltz “didn’t bring anybody in to dispute this [is] because they can’t” … Steltz did not object to these arguments. Instead, in rebuttal, Steltz’s counsel defended his trial strategy and stated that he was relying solely on Dr. Read, a board-certified radiologist with a fellowship in musculoskeletal radiology … Third, the trial court again charged the jury that “[e]vidence is not what the lawyers say.””

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held: “Based on these considerations, we conclude it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to grant a new trial in the absence of a mistake. Because we have concluded that a mistake did not occur, we reverse the order of the Superior Court and remand for further proceedings.”

Source Steltz v. Meyers, M.D., J-51-2021.

If you or a loved one suffered harm due to medical negligence in Pennsylvania or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a Pennsylvania 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 Saturday, January 15th, 2022 at 5:27 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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