Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Verdict for Defendant Doctor in Infant Wrongful Death Case

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently rejected arguments by a couple who lost a medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuit involving the 2009 death of their infant child. They filed suit against a doctor and a nurse in 2010 for the loss of their late daughter, who died three days after her birth.The mother made headlines in April 2011 after she went public with allegations that she was being discriminated against after she was notified one week after her daughter’s death that her job at the state Department of Higher Education was being eliminated. According to reports, the family’s house went into foreclosure, and the family lost their health insurance. Adding insult to injury, in April 2014, a Suffolk Superior Court jury returned a verdict for the doctor and the nurse.

The plaintiffs appealed, asserting claims of erroneous evidentiary rulings and jury instructions, as well as biased actions by the trial judge. The appeals court affirmed the judgment, concluding the plaintiffs’ allegations were unfounded.

The primary issue at trial, the appeals court explained, was the fetal heart rate tracings, which are electronically monitored readings to guarantee that a fetus maintains a healthy heart rate for delivery. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants negligently failed to properly monitor the baby’s tracings. As a result, they argued the defendants did not perform an emergency C-section when needed. The defendants claimed that the C-section occurred at the medically appropriate time according to the tracings.

The original tracings could not be located. Chart notations created later by post-delivery care providers, however, supported the plaintiffs’ position. The defendants claimed that the post-delivery notations were based on baseless assumptions. The plaintiffs introduced the post-delivery providers’ chart notations but failed to call as witnesses any of the individuals who had created them.

The plaintiffs asserted on appeal that the judge erroneously allowed the defendants to argue that the plaintiffs failed to present any evidence that the post-delivery care providers had examined the original records. The appeals court disagreed, explaining that the defendants were entitled to argue that the inference argued by the plaintiffs was not the sole logical explanation.

At trial, the plaintiffs claimed in their opening statement that the tracings were missing, and the defendants were the last people to have possessed them. The judge interpreted this as a reference to spoliation and instructed the jury not to consider any reference to missing tracings. (Spoliation of evidence is the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another party’s use as evidence, in pending or future litigation.) On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that this curative instruction amounted to prejudicial error.

The appeals court disagreed, reasoning the judge was allowed to guard against harmful inferences that weren’t supported by the evidence. There was no evidence in the record, the  court explained, to support the Sullivans’ claims that the defendants were the last people to have possessed the records or that spoliation occurred. Thus, the judge properly delivered a precautionary instruction.

Next, the plaintiffs contended that the judge’s instructions to the jury did not adequately explain the elements of a wrongful death claim. Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that the judge erroneously instructed the jury that a duty of care was owed exclusively to the mother but not to the child. The record, the appeals court explained, contradicted the plaintiffs’ claim. The trial court adequately instructed the jury regarding the standard of medical care owned to the infant by the doctors.

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that they were denied a fair trial due to judicial bias. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed the trial judge displayed favoritism toward the doctors, including snickering, delivering unfair rulings, and berating the plaintiffs’ attorney before the jury. The appeals court rejected this claim, reasoning that the record lacked any “sworn statements from either of the plaintiffs’ trial attorneys” regarding favoritism or bias.

The appeals court concluded that there was no basis to impugn the judge’s conduct, and there was no error in her findings. Thus, the appeals court affirmed the verdict.

If you have been harmed because of someone else’s negligence, you may need the assistance of a medical malpractice lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

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