For the past two years I have been litigating a medical malpractice case involving a woman who was catastrophically injured at a hospital in Northern Pennsylvania when her surgeon cut the wrong part of her anatomy during a routine procedure. The case is seated in Federal Court in the Western District of New York because the woman is a resident of New York and the hospital is located in Pennsylvania. Under the rules governing diversity jurisdiction — a situation where the parties reside or are domiciled in different states — the Federal Court is required to apply Pennsylvania law to the action.
The case is still being litigated, and therefore I will not divulge the details of the woman’s injuries or how the injury occurred. In fact, the interesting part of the case for now does not involve the malpractice itself, but rather the defendants’ primary defense to it.
Throughout the litigation the defendants have relied upon a principle called the “Error in Judgment” rule. Under this principle, a surgeon could be excused for his negligence by claiming that although in retrospect it appears he made errors during a procedure, he used his best judgment at the time and therefore did not violate the standard of care. The main problem with the defense for injured people is that it theoretically excuses medical providers for all but intentional conduct, leaving plaintiffs with little recourse.
However, it appears the days when a surgeon can argue “I thought I did it right at the time and therefore am not to blame” are over, at least in Pennsylvania. In August, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court handed down a ruling in Pringle v. Rapaport, 2009 Pa. Super. LEXIS 3267 (2009) where it held the “Error in Judgment” is inconstant with Pennsylvania law.
Pringle is a medical malpractice case involving a child who suffered extensive nerve damage in his neck as a result of shoulder dystocia, a condition in which an infant’s shoulder is stuck behind his mother’s pubic bone at the time of delivery. The child’s parents sued the delivery physician, claiming the physician negligently executed a maneuver (the “corkscrew maneuver”) to dislodge the child’s shoulder, resulting in injury. The parties agreed the physician correctly diagnosed the child with shoulder dystocia and appropriately chose to administer the corkscrew maneuver. The only remaining issue was whether the physician properly executed the maneuver. At trial, the Court instructed the jury, inter alia, physicians “are not liable for a mere mistake in judgment”. Id. at 1-4.
On appeal, the Superior Court – after addressing several seminal Pennsylvania cases dealing with the “Error in Judgment” charge – held the question of whether a physician exercised sound judgment is not relevant to whether the surgeon committed malpractice. Id. at 40-42. Indeed, the Court further reasoned the “Error of Judgment” charge “is inherently confusing and has no place in medical malpractice cases” for at least two reasons:
- “[I]t wrongly suggests to the jury that a physician is not culpable for one type of negligence – the negligent exercise of his or her own judgment”; and
- “[I]t wrongly injects a subjective element into the jury’s deliberations”…and may lead the jury “to conclude that only judgments made in bad faith are culpable – even though a doctor’s subjective intentions while rendering treatment are likewise irrelevant to the issues placed before a jury in a medical malpractice action.”
This is very good news for people who suffer injuries due to medical malpractice in Pennsylvania, and will hopefully result in greater safety and caution in hospitals.
Thanks for reading!
Christina Bruner Sonsire, Esq.