In a recent opinion, the California Court of Appeal addressed a case involving medical malpractice and the plaintiff’s allegations that she was prejudiced by the trial court’s instruction on comparative negligence. The appellate court stated that the test for reversing a judgment on appeal is whether the error caused a miscarriage of justice. Here, the court looked at the jury’s unanimous decision concerning the defendant’s alleged negligence, and it affirmed the lower court’s judgment.
Debra Groves filed a lawsuit against Hakob G. Davtyan, M.D. and other defendants, alleging negligence and other causes of action stemming from her February 16, 2010 surgery and subsequent care. The defendants other than Dr. Davtyan settled or were dismissed from the case.
At trial, the jury was instructed on Ms. Groves’ claim against Dr. Davtyan for medical negligence, The court also instructed the jury about a modified version of comparative negligence and apportionment of responsibility. They were informed certain individuals were no longer parties to the case and then asked, in another instruction, to apportion responsibility if people other than Dr. Davtyan were also negligent. In returning their special verdict in favor of Dr. Davtyan, the jury answered that Dr. Davtyan was not negligent in his care and treatment of Ms. Groves. They were instructed not to answer Question 3 (comparative negligence), since they answered “no” to Question No. 2.
The trial court entered judgment on the special verdict in favor of Dr. Davtyan. Ms. Groves filed a notice of appeal after her motion for a new trial was denied.
The appellate court stated that their standard of review requires independently assessing the validity of jury instructions on questions of law. If the jury has received an improper instruction in a civil case, reversal is required if it seems the verdict was based on an erroneous instruction, meaning prejudicial error.
Ms. Groves contended that the trial court prejudicially erred in providing the comparative negligence instructions. The court stated that if the jury had been confused by the instructions and the potential consideration of negligence of people other than Dr. Davtyan, any confusion could not have prejudicially affected the jury’s verdict in this case.
The jury found that Dr. Davtyan was not negligent in his care and treatment of Ms. Groves. Accordingly, they did not answer the remaining questions on the form regarding the possible negligence of other parties and the comparative negligence of others for Ms. Groves’ harm. The jury did not apply the purported erroneous instruction that, according to Ms. Groves, caused the jury confusion.
The court stated the rule that when a jury returns a verdict in favor of a defendant on the main issue, errors that exist in instructions on damages are not grounds for reversal. Additionally, if the jury’s finding of fact controls the judgment, the presence or absence of findings on other issues is inconsequential.
Here, the jury found that Dr. Davtyan was not negligent. The appellate court stated that if the trial court had not given the alleged confusing instruction, the verdict in favor of Dr. Davtyan would not have necessarily changed. In conclusion, the court stated it is not reasonably probable that Ms. Groves would have obtained a more favorable verdict if the court had not made the alleged instructional errors. In other words, the alleged instructional errors did not cause a miscarriage of justice that would require the judgment to be reversed.
The court affirmed the judgment on appeal.
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