A Doctor’s Indiscretion or Abuse of Discretion? Louisiana Supreme Court Weighs In

hospital_ward_hospital_medical_0-1024x683Sickness often begets a doctor’s visit, and sometimes severe illness calls for a trip to the emergency room. So when parents, David Pitts, Jr. and Kenyetta Gurley, arrived at Hood Memorial Hospital in Amite City, Louisiana, with their daughter, Lyric, it’s likely neither expected to leave there without their daughter’s health restored.

 Upon arrival at the emergency room, Lyric’s mother described her daughter’s symptoms as breathing “funny” and faster than usual and disclosed that she had thrown up twice earlier in the day. The hospital recorded that “Lyric had not had any liquid intake since 4:00 PM, and no output (i.e., dirty diaper) since 2:00 PM.” Around 7:30 PM, after Dr. Rhoda Jones (“Dr. Jones”) examined Lyric, she noted Lyric’s “shortness of breath” and “wheezing” in her lungs. Dr. Jones’s initial diagnosis was “asthma, possible pneumonia, and RSV,” so she ordered a chest x-ray, CBC (complete blood count), CMP (comprehensive metabolic panel), and a test for RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). The results of the chest x-ray came back normal, and the RSV test came back negative. Nevertheless, one of the nurses tending to Lyric had asked Dr. Jones at least three times if Lyric could be taken to another facility. Still, Dr. Jones insisted that no one would admit Lyric with negative or normal lab results and no fever.

 Lyric stayed at the hospital overnight. However, by 2:30 AM, Dr. Jones was called in to check on Lyric, and at approximately 3:00 PM, while she was holding Lyric, the 7-month-old baby had a seizure and stopped breathing. About an hour later, Lyric was declared dead, and the cause of death was listed as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle).

 Lyric’s parents filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Jones, alleging that she “breached the standard of care for emergency room physicians because she failed to recognize Lyric was a ‘sick baby’ and transfer her to a facility with a higher level of care.” During a jury trial at the District Court level, the jury ruled in a 9-3 decision in favor of Dr. Jones, indicating that although the plaintiffs proved the standard of care, they failed to prove that Dr. Jones breached that standard of care. Not agreeing with this decision, Lyric’s parents filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”) and, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial. 

In response to the plaintiffs’ motion, the District Court found that “[n]o reasonable jury could have found otherwise…the jury was confused by the testimony of the defense experts and applied the wrong standard of care to the defendant.” The District Court held, “A JNOV is designed to protect against arbitrary and unreasonable and biased juries, and is a proper vehicle to render justice herein. If not, then certainly a new trial is warranted;” therefore, the JNOV motion was granted, and the motion for a new trial was also conditionally granted. This decision was appealed by Dr. Jones.

 On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed both decisions by the District Court. In doing so, the Court of Appeal reasoned, “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 Dr. Jones by a preponderance of the evidence presented at trial. They concluded that the trial court’s granting of the motion for a JNOV constituted legal error and must be reversed.” Likewise, the Court of Appeals held that since the jury’s interpretation of the evidence at trial was fair, the plaintiffs could not be entitled to a new trial.

 Following this court disagreement, the plaintiffs sought review by the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s reversal of the District Court’s decision to grant the JNOV motion. The Supreme Court emphasized that JNOV enforces a “rigorous standard, authorized under La.C.P. 1811, and no matter how heart-breaking the outcome, a court cannot assess the credibility of witnesses.  

 Nonetheless, the Supreme Court stated that its refusal to grant the plaintiff’s JNOV motion does not preclude them from granting a new trial. In fact, according to La. C.C.P. art. 1972, a court can grant a new trial when: “(1) when the verdict or judgment appears 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.” Similarly, La. C.C.P. art 1973 indicates that when an examination of the facts convinces a court that a judgment would result in a miscarriage of justice, a new trial may be granted.

 According to the Supreme Court, the review of a motion for a new trial is “less stringent” than the “rigorous standard” applied to JNOV motions. Therefore, the standard of review the Supreme Court applies in motion for a new trial is whether the District Court abused its discretion. Here, while not every justice agreed, the majority on the Supreme Court found that the District Court did not abuse discretion under either La. C.C.P. art. 1972 or La. C.C.P. art 1973 and sent it back to the District Court for further proceedings.

 Despite some judicial silver linings, medical malpractice lawsuits can have a tremendous emotional toll. In looking for representation for these types of issues, consider an attorney who recognizes the weight of these decisions and acknowledges the importance of the grief that may be associated with the outcome.

 Additional sources: Pitts, et al. v. Louisiana Medical Mutual Insurance Company

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Gina McKlveen

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Medical Malpractice: Louisiana Court Finds Medical Malpractice Allegations Broad Enough to Proceed

Contact Information