Pennsylvania Child With Severe Birth Defects Granted New Trial in Personal Injury Case
Experienced litigators are crucial in order to effectively try a personal injury lawsuit. The majority of suits do not go to trial and are often settled before the trial date is reached. However, for those that do go to trial, knowledge of the law and what’s permitted by the civil rules of procedure is essential to obtaining a favorable verdict. Personal injury defendants’ main goal is to eliminate or minimize liability to the injured party, and they will attempt everything in order to avoid paying damages that the injured party is awarded.
In the medical malpractice case of Deeds v. Univ. of Penn. Medical Center, the trial judge allowed the attorney for the defendant to tell the jury that the plaintiff’s injuries are being adequately cared for because she qualified for government benefits. The child’s mother twice sought emergency medical care during her pregnancy from the same hospital. The first visit was for back and abdominal pain, and the second visit was for headaches, uterine contractions, and blurred vision. The medical records show that she had a physically small placenta and a history of sickle cell disease and physical trauma. Two days after the second visit, the mother delivered the child through an emergency cesarean section.
The attorney for the child appealed after the jury found for the defendants. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania acknowledged that the standard of review when considering a new trial is to uphold the decision of the trial court unless a clear abuse of discretion occurred. The Court found that the trial court did abuse its discretion by permitting the attorney for one of the defendants to talk about the availability of payments from another source.
Pennsylvania case law has the “collateral source rule,” which prevents the wrongdoer from pointing to payments from an external source (like Medicaid or insurance) in order to lessen or remove financial responsibility for damages. Simply put by Boudin v. Yellow Cab Co., “(t)he victim of a tort is entitled to the damages caused by the tortfeasor’s negligence regardless of compensation the victim receives from other sources.” If the testimony regarding collateral source payments is allowed during trial, the stated remedy for doing so is granting a new trial.
During the trial in Deeds, the defendants referenced government benefits several times while cross-examining the certified life planner, who was an expert witness called to provide an opinion on the future medical costs of the injured person over her lifetime. The trial judge sustained the injured person’s attorney’s objection to the line of questioning referencing Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act providing payments, but he didn’t offer any curative instructions to the jury. The defense attorney for one of the defendants made an explicit point during closing arguments that the injured patient has all her medical needs met through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. The Superior Court felt that this was all a patent violation of the collateral source rule. The court felt that curative or limiting instructions should have been given to the jury, with directions about how to evaluate the objectionable testimony. The Superior Court felt that it could not rule out the strong possibility that the jury was influenced by this improper behavior, and it granted a new trial.