American Medical Association data shows that merely 7% of medical malpractice claims reach a trial verdict, and in these cases, the defendant prevails approximately 87.5% of the time. A pending decision by Maryland's highest court could change the standard that jurors will be instructed to use in evaluating these cases.
Mark Armacost brought a malpractice claim against Reginald Davis M.D., a neurosurgeon. For many years, negligence in Maryland has been considered by jurors based on whether the defendant acted as a “reasonably competent” physician would, which is aided by expert medical witness testimony. In this case, the Baltimore County Court judge allowed jurors to also consider whether a layperson would deem the acts to be reasonable.
Background: Armacost v. Davis
Armacost underwent an anterior cervical discectomy and then incurred an infection and several other conditions. The claim alleged that Davis should have known that, based on his condition, Armacost was not appropriate for this surgery. The defense asked the judge to correct the jury instructions, but the request was denied.
Following a verdict for the Plaintiff, the defense appealed the decision. The appeals court agreed with the defense that the jury was improperly instructed and ordered that another trial be held. Many groups have since supported this decision including the American Medical Association and the Maryland Medical Society.
Opponents to the modified standard insist that the fundamental basis for malpractice claims is that interpretation of the professional standards for care in a medical specialty can only be assessed by a medical professional with specialized knowledge and training. Jurors do not have a working knowledge of specific medical professions necessary to determine whether the care was negligent. They feel that this determination must be reserved for medical expert witnesses.
A Long-Established Standard
The Litigation Center of the American Medical Association feels that changing the established standard would bring about more frivolous lawsuits, increases in costs, and encourage other courts to begin allowing varying standards. The Court of Special Appeals in the past has stated that medical negligence cases are uniquely complex and that jurors are likely incapable of assessing a doctor's medical judgment. The existing standard has been in place for decades in many states and they fear that such modifications will lead to meritless claims.
Another oddity in this case involving the judge was the response provided to a specific jury request. After several days of deliberations, the jury raised the question of what would occur if they were unable to unanimously reach a verdict. The response was that a mistrial would be ordered if the jury does not reach a consensus within another hour. The defense is also challenging this response saying that it was improper because it established a “verdict deadline”.
Court of Appeals Considerations
The high court will be tasked with addressing two key issues as follows:
- Were the jury instructions prejudicial against Davis by modifying a long-established standard for the duty of care?
- Was the jury coerced by the response they received regarding the consequences of failing to reach a consensus in a timely manner?