Medical malpractice cases may involve multiple defendants, with each potentially negligent to some degree that contributed to the plaintiff's injury. Each defendant is said to be jointly and severally liable, meaning that each party has responsibility for the negligence of all. If a defendant pays in excess of their “fair share” of damages, other defendants may have to compensate them. This is a scenario involving joint tortfeasors when a defendant pays more than their proportionately allocated damages and may be entitled to contribution. One related scenario to consider is when one or more of the defendants in the case reach a settlement with the plaintiff during the process, leaving the remaining defendant(s) for a trial.
In Copsey v. Park, the Maryland Court of Appeals addressed whether a remaining defendant can lay blame upon other defendants who had previously settled prior to trial. This malpractice action involved the death of a patient at Anne Arundel Medical Center--originally based on a misdiagnosis. Dr. John Park, a radiologist at the facility, reviewed a brain scan (MRI) image of Lance Copsey and failed to notice that his arteries showed signs of stroke. If the scan had been properly interpreted, Copsey likely would have received life-saving treatment. The situation further worsened as three other physicians then exhibited negligence in the matter. Of these three, one of the physicians was dismissed from the case and the two remaining agreed to settle for their roles.
The radiologist was the lone remaining defendant for the trial. His defense counsel conducted cross-examination on the medical experts as to the actions of the other defendants that had already settled. The plaintiff argued that including evidence pertaining to the other tortfeasors was not relevant and created a distraction among jurors. The court explained that the defendant had a right to present all relevant evidence in the case.
On appeal, the court affirmed that the negligence of the parties no longer associated with the case was admissible and the jury ruled in Park's favor. The plaintiff claimed that the court had erred in denying their motions in limine, which seeks to exclude certain evidence. Park emphasized the negligence of the physicians who later had treated Copsey prior to his death. The appeals court concurred that in order to fairly conduct the trial, the evidence concerning negligence among non-parties was necessary. The ruling suggested other factors beyond Park's involvement ultimately led to the death.
This case brings up the concept of a chain of causation. This is a sequence of events where each incident leads to the next, which in this context is each act of negligence. It is the responsibility of a jury to assess whether the actions of others that intervene create a break or continue the chain of causation. In this case, the defense was able to prove that Park's conduct was not below the standard of care and that the negligence of the doctors that subsequently treated Copsey caused his death.