Jury Verdict Upheld in Medical Malpractice Case Despite Allegation of Juror Misconduct
In Amy Labate, et al v. Rutland Hospital, Inc. et al, 2015 VT 128 (October 2, 2015) the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the jury verdict below and found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that there was insufficient proof of juror misconduct, therefore denying Plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial.
Issue: Plaintiffs alleged that Santiago Cancio-Bello, M.D. and Rutland Regional Medical Center (“RRMC”) committed medical malpractice following the birth of their child who was born with cerebral palsy. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Defendants finding that the Plaintiffs failed to prove the appropriate standard of care, therefore not reaching the issue of whether there was a deviation from that standard of care or whether any such deviation was the proximate cause of an injury. Following the verdict, Plaintiffs sought a new trial alleging that an email sent by RRMC to its employees denying wrongdoing tainted the verdict because one of the jurors was employed as a security guard for RRMC. It was alleged that the juror employed by RRMC may have seen the email. However, Plaintiffs neither sought discovery of, nor presented to the trial court, any evidence supporting this allegation.
Holding: The Court held that the trial court’s determination that the email sent by RRMC could not have affected the verdict was not an abuse of discretion. The decision rested primarily on the fact that the jury’s verdict was based on the Plaintiffs’ failure to establish the appropriate standard of care and not whether wrongdoing occurred. Because the jury did not reach the issue of whether the standard of care was breached, its decision could not have been prejudiced by one juror’s possible knowledge of an email from RRMC denying wrongdoing. The Court noted that Plaintiffs’ argument may have been more persuasive had the jury reached issues of fault and causation.
The Court further noted that the burden of proof to establish juror misconduct is unsettled in Vermont civil practice. In criminal matters, Constitutional protections require that a defendant need only set forth evidence that an irregularity occurred for the burden of proof to shift to the State to prove that the irregularity did not cause actual prejudice to the jury. Plaintiffs urged the Court to apply this standard. The Court commented that it found Plaintiffs’ argument in this respect unavailing, but declined to directly rule on the issue because it was not required to do so in order to reach its decision. Therefore, which party bears the burden of proof in civil matters involving alleged juror misconduct remains an unsettled issue in Vermont.