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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Jury instructions key to Alabama Supreme Court opinion in medical malpractice case; Verdict affirmed

State Court

By John Breslin | Jan 22, 2020


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) – Instructions to a jury in a medical malpractice case were front and center in a recent decision by the Alabama Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision issued Dec. 20, the court upheld a jury verdict in favor of an obstetrics clinic against a woman and her husband who sued over allegations the wife was injured when a surgical sponge was left in her body after she gave birth in 2014.

At the core of the appeal was whether the trial judge was correct in refusing to include particular instructions to the jury.

In the underlying suit, Niloofar N. Nichols and John Matthew Nichols filed an action against Tennessee Valley OB/GYN Clinic and Dr. Sharon L. Callison, claiming they were liable for Niloofar N. Nichols' injuries.

They argued that the Madison Circuit Court "erred in refusing to give a jury instruction that was necessary to accurately reflect the burden shifting required by Alabama law in retained-objects cases."

Justice Michael Bolin, writing for the majority, said the Supreme Court has previously recommended the use of what are described as pattern charges, but "without prejudice to the rights of any litigant to make and reserve for review any objections."

The Alabama Pattern Jury Instructions Committee draws up the template, but they are not "omnipresent, omnipotent, and all-encompassing," Bolin wrote. "The effective end result of this process allows selfless experts in the field of civil litigation serving on the Committee to continue to study intervening statutory law and case law."

Chief Justice Tom Parker, dissenting, said the Nicholses "argue that the Circuit Court erred in refusing the Nicholses' burden instruction, which resulted in the failure of the given jury instructions to accurately explain that a plaintiff's showing of a retained object shifts."

"The failure of the court's burden instruction to acknowledge that burden shifting, and what triggers it, resulted in an inaccurate statement of the law," Parker wrote. "By giving jury instructions that inaccurately stated the law, the Circuit Court exceeded its discretion." 

Parker wrote that he would reverse the judgment and remand for a new trial as he believed the jury instructions "did not accurately reflect the burden-shifting process required."

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