Tennessee Plaintiffs Allowed New Trial After Procedural Error in Wrongful Death Case

The death of a child is a heart-wrenching experience, and more so when family members believe it could have been prevented.  In such situations, a Tennessee medical malpractice attorney can handle the procedural aspects of a negligence lawsuit, while the family focuses on healing.  A February 6, 2018 medical malpractice case before the Court of Appeals of Tennessee was brought by the parents of an infant who died in childbirth.  After a jury ruled in favor of the medical provider defendants, the plaintiffs appealed.  The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued a technical point on appeal concerning the jury selection, and they ultimately succeeded in reversing the verdict and obtaining a new trial.

The plaintiffs in the case, individually and as administrators of the child’s estate, filed a complaint against the hospital, the treating physician, and the OBGYN practice, alleging negligence and vicarious liability for the wrongful death of their child.  During the jury selection process, the plaintiffs requested eight peremptory challenges, arguing that there were two party plaintiffs.  The trial court denied the request, finding that it was only the estate’s lawsuit, and granted the plaintiffs four peremptory challenges with two additional challenges for alternates.  The plaintiffs could, therefore, strike only four potential jurors from the selection pool without cause.

One of the arguments on appeal was whether the trial court erred in limiting the plaintiffs to less than eight peremptory challenges.  A peremptory challenge is a right provided by statute, permitting a party plaintiff to exclude a prospective juror without giving any reason for it.  The statute at issue allows four challenges for the party plaintiff, and in the event, there is more than one plaintiff, it provides for an additional four challenges.  The initial question for the court, therefore, was whether the wrongful death action belonged to one plaintiff, i.e., the estate, or whether both parents named in the lawsuit constituted two plaintiffs.

The court reviewed the wrongful death statute and noted that, while a spouse typically has priority to control the action, here, the action was properly brought by both parents, who constituted the infant’s next of kin.  The court observed that for the wrongful death of a child, the statute grants the right of action to the parents, and it indicates no preference or language giving priority to one parent over another if the child was in the custody of both parents.  As a result, since both the mother and the father had an equal right to participate in the action, the appeals court concluded they were separate party plaintiffs with four peremptory challenges each.

The defendants, nevertheless, contended that despite the error by the trial court, the verdict should not be reversed because the plaintiffs did not show that they suffered any prejudice by the error or that the jury would have decided differently.  The appeals court explained that a jury verdict could still be invalidated even in the absence of actual prejudice if it would result in prejudice to the judicial process.  The court then pointed to earlier Tennessee court rulings that held that failing to allow plaintiffs to exercise all of the peremptory challenges constitutes prejudice to the judicial process.  Accordingly, the appeals court ruled that the trial court’s failure to allow for all eight peremptory challenges necessitated a new trial.

At MHPS, our Nashville medical malpractice attorneys have helped victims and their family members hold hospitals and businesses responsible for negligence.  If you believe you received faulty health care treatment, discuss your case as soon as possible with a legal professional.  Schedule an appointment with one of our knowledgeable lawyers by calling (615) 800-7096 or contacting us online.

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