A medical malpractice case in Florida that was hampered by a trial error was the subject of a Florida Supreme Court decision, which was issued last week. In its decision the court established a new harmless error test in civil cases, placing the burden of proving that an error in the trial did not contribute to the verdict on the beneficiary of the error. The court also determined that witness intimidation played a role in the outcome of the case, and required a new trial be held.
The case concerned the death of a woman during childbirth in 2003. The plaintiff held that medical negligence in the monitoring of the Cesarean surgery, administration of spinal anesthesia, and response to subsequent cardiopulmonary arrest led to the death of the 38-year-old woman. The defense held that the woman suffered from a condition known as amniotic fluid embolus (AFE), where amniotic fluid mixes with the mother's blood, causing an allergic reaction which proved fatal.
The plaintiff argued against the AFE diagnosis, stating that the hospital routinely over-diagnosed AFE. In court the defense equated the rates of AFE at the hospital as being equivalent to the national average of 1 in 20,000 births. The defense stated that of the 20,000 births per year at the hospital, 1 or 2 involved AFE. However, prior to the trial, the defense had stated that there were only 2,200 births per year, "which the plaintiff argued would mean that the defendant hospital was over-estimating the incidence of AFE at the defendant hospital by about ten-fold." According to Medicalmalpracticelawyers.com, "The trail court did not permit the plaintiff to cross-examine the defense AFE expert as the above."
Supreme Court Decision
The court found that the trial court was in error in not allowing cross-examination, and that it was not possible to rule out the possibility that the factual error on which the cross-examination would have hinged may have altered the verdict of the case. The court then established that in civil cases, the beneficiary of an error must prove that this error did not contribute to the verdict of the case. The party claiming harmful error is obliged to bring this error to the attention of the court, after which the other party must "demonstrate that there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.