Doctors in the Courtroom

I’ve just gotten through two of the toughest weeks in my career.  I was in four cities, not including Atlanta, in four days doing depositions and then worked through the weekend and Monday getting pleadings out to meet a deadline.  Oh, and did I mention my mother-in-law is in hospice? I’m not whining, just giving an excuse — a pretty good one, I think — for why I didn’t get around to blogging.

Anyway, somewhere in the middle of all that turmoil, I came across an interesting medical malpractice case out of Billings, Montana.  Gerard “Gerry” Heidt, 42, died Oct. 5, 2005 from undiagnosed heart valve leakage.  A jury returned a verdict for $1.7 million, almost all of it calculated as lost wages.  The absence of a jury award for pain-and-suffering damages is so commonplace nowadays as to be hardly worth mentioning. In many ways, the Heidt case was just ordinary.

But, it turns out that this recent verdict was the second trial of this case.   The first trial was a doozy and wound up in the Montana Supreme Court.

Everything in the first trial was going smoothly, if boringly, until the last day when Heidt’s lawyer began his closing argument to the jury.  Courts are pretty lenient about what they allow a lawyer to do in closing argument and it is de rigueur among many trial lawyers to “channel” the decedent in wrongful-death cases.  In other words, the attorney tries to pretend to be the decedent and describes the horrible things that happened to him while alive.  John Edwards, erstwhile candidate for president, was famous for itHeck, I’d try it myself, if I thought I could do it with a straight face.

Anyway, Heidt’s lawyer starts channeling and gets increasingly graphic. At one point he even describes his own autopsy. At that point, one of the female jurors declared she was going to faint and pandemonium broke out.  Dr. Argani — the defendant! — and Dr. Hammond — one of the plaintiff’s attorneys! —  as well as three nurses — who were jurors! — immediately came to the woman’s assistance.   An ambulance arrived and took the lady to the hospital.

Heidt’s lawyers moved for a mistrial and, astonishingly, the judge seated the alternate juror and allowed the trial to continue! [I’ve never used so many exclamation points in my life, but on the other hand, I’ve never heard of anything like these events.]  The jury returned a verdict for the defendant doctor.

Sober heads eventually prevailed.  The Montana Justices managed to find two other reported medical malpractice cases in which the defendant rendered medical care to a juror during the course of the trial.  The Justices reasoned that whenever such an event occurs, the trial judge has to declare a mistrial.  The jury has just seen the doctor give competent, possibly life-saving care to a fellow juror. The influence of such an event on the jury is immeasurable; no one is likely to blame a doctor for a prior lapse after witnessing competence under fire.  So, the Supreme Court reversed and sent the case back for another trial.  The second trial was routine and the $1.7 million verdict ensued.

Article first published as Doctors in the Courtroom on Technorati.

Glenn L. Goodhart, M.D., J.D.

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