Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Rule on Medical Malpractice Jury Instructions

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is set to hear a case that will have a significant impact on how medical malpractice lawsuits are handled in the Commonwealth. At the heart of the case is whether a jury should be instructed that an “error in judgment” does not constitute negligence/medical malpractice.

In the case being heard by the Pennsylvania high court involves an infant who underwent multiple treatments for gastroesophageal reflux in 2001. After several appointments with the defendant pediatrician and no physical improvement in the infant, the parents brought the child to the emergency room. The infant was in severe respiratory distress, and the child died soon after. The autopsy revealed the cause of death as diffuse viral myocarditis, a viral infection of the heart.

The parents sued the pediatrician for medical malpractice. At the medical malpractice trial, the jury was instructed that “a mere error in judgment” does not constitute negligence/medical malpractice. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of the defendant pediatrician.

At the same time as the trial, another medical malpractice case involving a damaged infant was being tried. Similarly, the judge instructed the jury — after all evidence had been submitted and prior to deliberation — that “physicians who exercise the skill, knowledge and care customarily exercised in their profession are not liable for a mere mistake of judgment. Under the law, physicians are permitted a broad range of judgment in their professional duties, and they are not liable for errors of judgment unless it is proven that an error of judgment was the result of negligence. And folks, as a general proposition that applies in any case, doctors or physicians do not guarantee a cure to their patients, and negligence should not be presumed from the occurrence of an unfortunate result.”

In this second case, the jury also rendered a verdict in defense of the defendant physician. The plaintiffs appealed their medical malpractice case, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, remarking that the original judge should not have given the “error in judgment” instruction to the jury. This opened grounds for appeal in the first case.

Now the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to decide which lower court’s ruling is proper. Should juries be instructed that “a mere error in judgment” does not constitute medical malpractice? Or does that instruction confuse juries when contemplating whether a physician’s conduct is within the standard of care. The ruling will have significant bearing on how medical malpractice cases are presented in Pennsylvania in the future.

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