Medical Malpractice, Jury Instructions, & “Errors in Judgment”

Each Chicago medical malpractice attorney at our firm is well-versed in trial practice skills. Most cases settle before the need to go to trial. However, that does not mean that it is not vital to have a legal professional on your side who is capable of providing the best available trial services should the need arise to bring a case into a courtroom and in front of a jury.

Trials come with their own complexities, and even seemingly subtle issues can completely change the outcome of a case. That is why is it vital for Illinois medical malpractice attorneys to be attuned to the latest trial practice issues affecting these cases. For example, the Post-Gazette recently discussed a contentious issue in Pennsylvania about a controversial new “defense” that some medical professionals are trying to use to avoid accountability in certain medical malpractice cases.

“Error of Judgment” Rule
The state’s Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on whether or not the “error of judgment” jury instructions are appropriate in these cases. As we have frequently explained, medical malpractice cases are based on negligence. Negligence is a very specific legal principle that refers to conduct outside the bounds of reasonable conduct, where reasonable conduct is defined objectively-based on standards in the profession.

However, defense attorneys in the state are trying to argue that when giving instructions on the law to the jury in these cases, the judge should include a statement that an “error in judgment” does not constitute negligence. The jury instruction in the specific case at issue was as follows:

“Under the law physicians are permitted a broad range of judgment in their professional duties and physicians are not liable for errors of judgment unless it’s proven that an error of judgment was the result of negligence.”

The jury in that case ruled for the defense. However, the plaintiff appealed and the appellate court reversed, holding it was a mistake for the trial judge to read the abuse “error of judgment” instruction to the jury.

Jury Instructions
It is hard to overestimate the importance of jury instructions in each individual case. At trial the jury is suppose to be a “fact finder,” making decisions about facts that are or are not true. The jury is not supposed to decide what the law is or is not. The instructions are essentially supposed to be clear explanations of what the law is. In that way, jurors are charged to make fact determinations and then apply them to the law as given to them in the jury instructions. If the legal principles outlined in the instructions are incorrect or misleading, then the jury is incapable of serving its intended function.

Our medical malpractice attorneys appreciate that in cases like this one, the “error in judgment” instruction is incredibly misleading. The law is complex, and it is vital for jurors to be given as straight-forward and explanation as possible. It might be reasonable for a jury hearing this instruction to believe that so long as a doctor just made a “judgment error” then they should not be held liable. That isn’t true. The determination is whether or not the doctor’s conduct conformed to applicable standards of care that would have been met by a reasonable doctor. Whether or not it was an “error of judgment” is irrelevant.

See Our Related Blog Posts:

Failure to Diagnose Broken Neck Leads to Paralysis

Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed After Illinois Medical Malpractice

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