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New Opinion: Wrongful Death Malpractice Verdict Reversed

The first thing they do in a communist Nazi country is destroy the jury system. Why do they want to destroy the jury system? Because you represent the line between tyranny and democracy, right and wrong. You have the power. . . You have more power today than the President of the United States. . . . But the question is, will you have courage today? Do you have the God given courage. . . .

This is a line from a closing statement in a wrongful death medical malpractice case in Mississippi. Setting aside that the Nazis were not communists but bitter enemies of communism, this is just unbelievably over-the-top, right? This line, Plaintiff’s closing statement, a jury instruction stating that an element of the wrongful death claim was the “loss of the value of life,” led the Mississippi Supreme Court to reverse a $1 million jury verdict in a wrongful death case.closingarg

This case is a classic “you could have saved her if you had taken the case more seriously in the ER” case. It happens every day in this country. Here, the woman presented at the emergency room with a lot of problems: confusion, decreased appetite, tremors, renal disease, respiratory failure, and pneumonia. They did not take her to intensive care but gave her antibiotics, and the woman went into cardiopulmonary arrest. The opinion does not go into the merits of the case, but you can be sure the doctor’s attorney contested both negligence and causation.

A jury found the doctor negligent and awarded $1 million. The doctor appealed, arguing that the plaintiff’s malpractice attorney made improper comments to the jury, including that the damages should include, “the value of a human life.” Plaintiff’s counsel was echoing the jury instruction that the jury may consider the “value of life” of the deceased when awarding damages.

The complete thing was a mess. It was not a great instruction and maybe a little misleading. Defense counsel also did not properly object to the instruction, which would have given the court a chance to cure the problem or allow the plaintiff’s lawyer to withdraw the request.

The Mississippi high court agreed, finding reversible error because the trial judge should not have instructed the jury – nor should the plaintiff’s counsel have argued to them – that they could consider the ‘value of life’ of the deceased in awarding damages.

Mississippi’s wrongful death law, like Maryland’s, allows damages for the loss of the companionship and society of the decedent. Is “value of the life” another way of saying that? Okay, maybe not exactly, but I think it is close enough to be harmless, particularly when defense counsel did not object to it. It is hard not to see the elected Mississippi Supreme Court here as the man looking for a nail. In its recent history, personal injury plaintiffs had a zero percent success rate before the court.

It really makes me appreciate the Maryland Court of Appeals. I don’t always agree with their finding but if you read their opinions – and maybe more importantly, watch oral arguments, you get the clear sense the court is trying its best to make the right call and you don’t feel any outside agendas other than the invariable interloper of the judge’s ideology. These judges in Mississippi need and accept campaign contributions. Does it influence their opinions? I don’t see how it couldn’t. Human beings, even honest ones, try to take care of their own when they are doing everything that they do. It has been this way for all of humanity’s reign.

You can find the opinion in Vaney v. Lance here.

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