• Mobile Infirmary Medical Center v. James Hodgen
  • November 7, 2003 | Author: Kristen S. Cross
  • Law Firm: Sirote & Permutt, P.C. - Birmingham Office
  • In a significant opinion issued last week, the Alabama Supreme Court addressed several interesting issues arising from a jury verdict in a medical practice action, and implemented therein the use of a new jury verdict form in certain types of punitive damages cases.

    Mobile Infirmary Medical Center v. James Hodgen; No. 1011932 (October 31, 2003). In Mobile Infirmary Medical Center v. Hodgen, Plaintiff was a patient at the defendant hospital recovering from cardiac bypass surgery when a nurse administered an overdose of medication causing complications which led to permanent injury. Hodgen sued the hospital under the Alabama Medical Liability Act alleging that the hospital had been negligent and/or wanton in administering the overdose of medication and in supervising its employees.

    There was evidence at trial that Hodgen had insurance to pay his medical expenses. At the close of all the evidence, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Hodgen but indicated on the jury verdict form that it was awarding $0 in past damages, $0 in future damages, but $2,250,000.00 in punitive damages, for a total award of $2,250,000.00. Presumably, the jury's failure to award any compensatory damages for medical expenses was based on the evidence that Hodgen had medical insurance, i.e., a "collateral source," to cover his medical expenses. The trial court entered the $2,250,000 verdict as a final judgment. The trial court denied the hospital's post-trial motions as well as its motion to remit the punitive damages award. The hospital appealed on several grounds.

    First, the hospital argued that the trial court erred in entering the jury verdict because the jury awarded the Plaintiff only punitive damages and the long standing rule in Alabama is that a jury must award compensatory damages or nominal damages before it can award punitive damages. Immediately after the jury returned its verdict, however, the trial court judge asked the attorneys whether it was permissible for the jury to return such an award and counsel for the hospital affirmatively represented to the trial court that such an award was proper. The jury was discharged and a judgment against the hospital was entered in the amount of $2,250,000. Thereafter, counsel for the hospital moved for a Judgment as a Matter of Law, arguing that the trial court erred in entering its judgment on the jury verdict because the jury had not awarded compensatory or nominal damages. The trial court denied the hospital's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, noting that had counsel for the hospital indicated his concern that the verdict was improper the court could have cured any problems with the verdict form at that time by returning the jury and recharging the jury on damages. The Alabama Supreme Court agreed with the trial court's assessment, noting that a party cannot induce the trial court to make an error and then attempt to win a reversal based on that error.

    The second argument made by Mobile Infirmary in its Appeal was that the trial court erred in denying the hospital's renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law with respect to the claim for wantonness since there was no evidence that the nurse who administered the overdose of medication intended to harm Hodgen. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the trial court's denial of the Defendant's renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on the issue of wantonness on the grounds that there was evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the employees responsible for the overdose acted recklessly and in a conscious disregard for Hodgen's safety.

    The third grounds upon which the hospital based its Appeal was its contention that the trial court should have declared a mistrial following an allegedly prejudicial remark made by the trial court judge to a potential juror during voir dire. During general voir dire questioning by the judge, one prospective juror noted that the company he worked for did business with the hospital. After the potential juror stated that the hospital was an important client, the trial court made the following comment:

    "You understand that if you are on a jury that ruled against [the hospital] they might find out about it and take your business away from you? Do you understand that?"

    The hospital argued at the trial court level and on appeal that the remark implied that if the potential juror were find in favor of the Plaintiff, his doing so might have negative consequences. At trial, the judge gave a curative instruction to the jury. The hospital did not object to the curative instruction and did not seek a mistrial after the instruction was given. The issue was, in fact, dropped by the hospital and was not mentioned in any of its trial or post-trial motions. The Alabama Supreme Court rejected this argument on appeal on the grounds that the issue had been essentially dropped by the hospital at the trial court level and on the grounds that hospital had not met its burden of showing that "the error complained of has probably injuriously effected substantial rights of the parties."

    The hospital also argued on appeal that the Alabama Supreme Court should revive Alabama Code Section 6-5-544(b), which at one time placed a $400,000.00 cap on the non-economic damages that could be awarded in a medical malpractice case, but which was declared unconstitutional by the Alabama Supreme Court in Moore v. Mobile Infirmary Association, 592 So.2d 156, (Ala.1991). On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court declined to revisit the issue and/or to reinstate a $400,000.00 cap since the legislature has, subsequent to the Supreme Court's decision in Moore, enacted a new statutory cap on punitive damages that encompasses medical malpractice cases.

    Finally, the hospital argued on appeal that the trial court erred in its failure to apply the cap on punitive damages established in Ala. Code Section 6-11-21(d), which provides that "no award of punitive damages shall exceed three times the compensatory damages of the party claiming punitive damages or one million five hundred thousand dollars ($1,500,000) whichever is greater."

    In declining to reduce the punitive damages award pursuant to § 6-11-21(d), the trial court found that Hodgen had established approximately $1,600,000 in future compensatory damages (albeit future damages that would be paid by Hodgen's health insurance), and that the punitive damages award of $2,250,000 was less than three times that amount. The trial court also explained at length the dilemma which has been created by the abolition of the collateral source rule. The old collateral source rule prevented any evidence of payments to an injured party from any "collateral source" such as an insurance company. Now that the collateral source rule has been abolished and evidence of payments from collateral sources is admissible, juries may or may not award compensatory damages when such damages have been paid or will be paid by another source. This necessarily has an effect on the punitive damages statutes in Alabama which base the permissible amount of punitive damages on the amount of compensatory damages. In addressing this issue, the trial court again noted that when it had expressed concern over the jury's decision to award punitive damages without awarding compensatory damages, counsel for the hospital stated his opinion that the award was valid.

    The Alabama Supreme Court noted in assessing the trial court's decision that the trial court was faced with "the combined circumstances of (1) the unsettled law as to the effect of the abolition of the collateral source rule, and (2) [the hospital's] vouching for the validity of the verdict, thus preventing the court from recharging the jury on compensatory damages and nominal damages." Nevertheless, the Alabama Supreme Court determined that the better solution in such circumstances was to implement a new procedure by which jury verdicts should be recorded.

    Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court determined that in cases such as this one, a special interrogatory should be propounded to the jury which gives the jury the opportunity to state the amount of compensatory damages it would have awarded if not for the availability of compensation to the Plaintiff from a collateral source. The Alabama Supreme Court found that such information would enable the trial court to apply the cap set forth in Alabama Code Section 6-11-21(d).

    In the instant case, however, which was decided before the requirement of the new jury verdict form was announced, the Alabama Supreme Court decided that it could not permit the verdict to stand based on the trial court's speculative finding that $1,600,000.00 in past and future medical expenses constituted the compensatory damages that would have been awarded for the purposes of determining a reasonable punitive damage award. Accordingly, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court on the condition that Hodgen file within fourteen (14) days a remittitur of the punitive damage award to $1,500,000.00.