E-Alert Case Updates
Trial Court Erred in Granting JNOV on Grounds Not Raised by Defendant and in Concluding That Plaintiffs Failed to Establish Their Claims
Carolyn Gibau, et al. v. Joel Falik
In a recent unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals held that the Circuit Court erred in granting the Defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict for both procedural and substantive reasons.
Plaintiffs’ decedent was hospitalized after being assaulted in 2010 and died two (2) days later. Plaintiffs subsequently sued Defendant, a neurosurgeon and one of the decedent’s treating physicians, for malpractice, alleging two (2) violations of the standard of care: (1) failure to prophylactically administer anticonvulsant medication to the decedent; and (2) failure to transfer the decedent to the intensive care unit (“ICU”) on the morning of his death. Plaintiffs alleged that Defendant’s breaches of the standard of care caused the decedent to suffer a fatal seizure.
The case proceeded to trial. At the close of Plaintiffs’ case, defense counsel moved for judgment as a matter of law and specifically argued that Plaintiffs failed to establish that not transferring the decedent to the ICU was the proximate cause of the decedent’s death. When the Court asked defense counsel if he had any argument with respect to Plaintiffs’ claim regarding Defendant’s failure to administer anti-seizure medicine, counsel admitted that there was some expert testimony offered in support of Plaintiffs’ position, so counsel was “not going to jump up and down on that one.” The Court denied the motion.
Defendant presented his case. At the close of all evidence, Defendant’s counsel “renew[ed] the motion made at the end of the plaintiffs’ case,” and made three (3) specific arguments: (1) there was no evidence showing that the failure to transfer the decedent to the ICU was the proximate cause of the decedent’s death; (2) there was no causal connection between any breach of the standard of care and any pain or suffering; and (3) the failure of Plaintiffs’ expert to provide complete subpoenaed tax records documenting the income he earned as an expert witness prejudiced the defense. The Court found that Plaintiffs’ expert’s tax documents were deficient and found the expert in contempt for violation of the subpoena, but reserved ruling on any sanction and the motion for judgment.
The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiffs. Subsequently, Defendant submitted a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”), this time asserting that the jury’s award for pain and suffering should be stricken because Plaintiffs failed to prove conscious pain and suffering. The motion did not contain any argument regarding Plaintiffs’ failure to prove causation. Defendant also submitted a motion for a mistrial due to the failure of Plaintiffs’ expert to provide Defendant with his tax returns. The Court granted the motion for JNOV, but on the grounds that “no reasonable trier of fact could have found that [Defendant] breached the standard of care in this case, let alone that any suggested breach was a causative factor in” the decedent’s death, and it struck the entirety of the jury’s award. In light of this decision, the Court did not rule on the motion for a mistrial, as that motion was rendered moot. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the Circuit Court erred in granting the motion on grounds not raised by Defendant, and that, in any event, the Court’s decision was substantively incorrect.
Judge Berger, writing for the Court of Special Appeals, agreed with Plaintiffs. Addressing first whether the Circuit Court erroneously granted the motion on grounds not raised by Defendant, the Court noted that Maryland Rule 2-519(a) requires that the party moving for JNOV must state the grounds for their motion with particularity. The Rule thus functions to give the opposing party a fair chance to address the arguments against it. Here, Defendant’s motion was based on the argument that Plaintiffs had not proved conscious pain and suffering, and accordingly, Plaintiffs’ response only addressed that issue. It was therefore erroneous for the Circuit Court to grant JNOV where Plaintiffs were not afforded the opportunity to set forth argument for grounds not raised in the motion. Furthermore, defense counsel had specifically not raised any argument with respect to Plaintiff’s failure to prove causation as to the anti-seizure medication argument. Consequently, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that the Circuit Court’s ruling should be reversed on this ground alone.
The Court nonetheless considered whether the Circuit Court substantively erred in granting Defendant’s motion for JNOV. It stated that Defendant did correctly note that he presented the testimony of three (3) expert witnesses who supported his position in detail, while Plaintiff presented only one expert witness who testified in a more superficial regard. Nonetheless, the strength of the expert testimony was a matter that went to the weight of the testimony. However thin, Plaintiff had presented testimony that Defendant breached the standard of care in failing to administer anti-seizure medication prophylactically. Because there was legally competent evidence upon which a jury could conclude that Defendant breached the standard of care, the Circuit Court erred in granting the motion for JNOV. The Court of Special Appeals therefore vacated the Circuit Court’s holding and remanded the case.
The Court also provided guidance as to how the case should proceed on remand. Because the Circuit Court had only ruled on grounds not in Defendant’s motion for JNOV, the Court of Special Appeals held that it was appropriate for the Circuit Court to consider the grounds actually raised in the motion at this time. Furthermore, because Defendant’s motion for a mistrial was no longer moot, the Court of Special Appeals instructed the Circuit Court to also consider the merits of that motion.
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