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Jack v. Booth

Supreme Court of Iowa

January 23, 2015

MARY E. JACK, Individually and as Parent and Next Friend of ELLA JACK and OWEN JACK and LAWRENCE LAIRD JACK III, Individually, Appellants,
v.
JENNIFER R. BOOTH, Appellee, JOHN GERRAD SWEETMAN, Appellee

Page 712

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals. Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Douglas F. Staskal, Judge. A physician seeks further review of a court of appeals decision reversing the district court's judgment and granting a new trial to the plaintiffs after the physician's codefendant rendered medical assistance to a juror during trial.

Eric M. Updegraff of Stoltze & Updegraff, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants.

Robert C. Rouwenhorst of Rouwenhorst & Rouwenhorst, P.C., West Des Moines (until withdrawal), then Frederick T. Harris and Stacie M. Codr of Finley, Alt, Smith, Scharnberg, Craig, Hilmes & Gaffney, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee Sweetman.

Thomas J. Shomaker and Mark M. Schott of Sodoro, Daly, Shomaker & Selde, PC, LLO, Omaha, Nebraska, for appellee Booth.

OPINION

Page 713

MANSFIELD, Justice.

A juror fainted in the middle of a medical malpractice trial against two physicians. One of the physicians rose to assist her immediately. The juror quickly recovered and was excused. The district court interviewed the remaining jurors regarding the impact of this incident, denied the plaintiffs' motion for mistrial, and ordered the trial to continue. The jury ultimately returned defense verdicts for both physicians. The district court entered judgment on the verdicts. The court of appeals, however, reversed, ordering a new trial as to both defendants.

The physician who did not help the stricken juror now seeks further review of the court of appeals decision. Thus, we have to determine whether the district court abused its discretion when it allowed the jury verdict to stand as to the physician who had not rendered medical assistance. We conclude it did not. The claims against the two physicians were distinct and arose out of separate acts of alleged malpractice at different times. We do not believe plaintiffs' arguments that one physician defendant's actions engendered a sense of undue goodwill and respect in the jury toward the medical profession generally are a sufficient basis for overturning the district court's on-the-scene exercise of discretion. We therefore affirm the judgment of the district court and vacate the decision of the court of appeals on this point. We remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On February 17, 2009, Mary E. Jack was admitted to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, complaining of pelvic pain. She was thirty-five weeks pregnant. Upon her arrival, Jack was diagnosed with high blood pressure and preeclampsia. Dr. Jennifer Booth, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist, was on call and performed an emergency cesarean section after attempting to initiate preterm labor and discovering a prolapsed umbilical cord. As a result of the cesarean section, Jack suffered blood loss, and her blood pressure dropped.

The next day, February 18, Dr. Booth performed a second surgery to treat Jack's low blood pressure and blood loss. During this surgery, Jack underwent a full hysterectomy.

In preparation for the second surgery, Dr. John Sweetman, an anesthesiologist, inserted an IV into Jack's right arm. During that second surgery, Jack's arm became discolored and swollen, apparently because the IV infiltrated.[1]

Later on February 18, Jack underwent a third surgery to relieve internal pressure

Page 714

in her right arm and hand. On February 24, Jack went through a fourth and final surgery to close the incision made earlier to relieve the arm and hand pressure.

On December 30, 2010, Jack, individually and on behalf of her children, sued both Dr. Booth and Dr. Sweetman.[2] The petition alleged in the first count that Dr. Booth was negligent in performing the cesarean section and monitoring Jack's postoperation bleeding and complications. In the second count, Jack alleged Dr. Sweetman had acted negligently with respect to the infiltrated IV in Jack's right arm.[3]

In both counts, Jack sought damages for past and future medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of body function, loss of wages, future impairment of earning capacity, and loss of consortium with her husband and two children. A separate claim for loss of consortium was included against each defendant on behalf of Jack's husband, Lawrence.

Dr. Booth and Dr. Sweetman answered the petition separately. Each was represented by separate counsel, and each denied having acted negligently in rendering his or her respective medical services to Jack. The case proceeded to a jury trial commencing on November 5, 2012.

On November 7, a juror was taken ill during Dr. Booth's testimony. The district court described the situation as follows:

THE COURT: I just want to make the record clear as to exactly what happened because I'm not sure in this discussion that there was an actual description of what occurred. What occurred was one of the jurors fainted while she was sitting in her chair in the jury box, and it wasn't noticed immediately by the court when it was. The juror next to her was trying to, you know, revive her, wake her up, so to speak.
At that point everyone in the courtroom noticed what was going on. Dr. Sweetman got up from where he's sitting in the gallery and went over into the jury box and began treating, so to speak, the juror. And he was talking to her, and . . . was assessing her condition, and she clearly had fainted and was ill. And she eventually laid down on one of the pews in the courtroom, and within the next 15 or 20 minutes she was okay, and we took our lunch break. When this happened the rest of the jurors were obviously all present sitting in the -- or standing and sitting in the jury box, obviously observing what was going on. But within two or three minutes of this beginning, the court directed the rest of the jurors to go to their lounge and they did. So they did not observe the entire -- or were not in the courtroom during the entire episode.

After this incident, the plaintiffs orally moved for a mistrial. As plaintiffs' counsel explained,

Personally I'm not trying to criticize Dr. Sweetman. He did exactly what I would hope he would do in that circumstance. Obviously, the juror's health and well-being [are] much more important than this jury trial, and we're glad that he did that. But it does create a problem for our case where we don't think that jurors who have witnessed him in action, for lack of a better term, are going to be able to be unbiased or

Page 715

unprejudiced by that when considering a medical malpractice action against him.

The district court decided to dismiss the juror who had been ill, but denied the motion for mistrial. It did leave open the possibility of reconsidering that ruling after the court polled the remaining jurors. The court then personally inquired of each juror, seeking to ascertain his or her ability to remain fair and neutral.[4] These interviews occurred in the presence of counsel but out of the presence of the other jurors. During the interviews, the court gave counsel the opportunity to ask questions. After receiving responses from all remaining jurors that they could be fair and impartial, the district court allowed its prior ruling to stand.

Before the case was submitted to the jury, the Jacks renewed their motion for a mistrial. The district court again denied the motion, stating, " The Court believes the steps it took by removing the juror that Doctor Sweetman attended to and in individually voir diring the other jurors indicated that proceeding with the trial with the remaining jurors would not prejudice the plaintiffs."

Jury instruction number 12 stated in part, " You must judge the acts or omissions of each of the defendants separately." The jury was also given separate negligence instructions for each defendant:

INSTRUCTION NO. 14
As to their claim of negligence against Dr. Booth, the plaintiffs must prove all of the following propositions:
1. Dr. Booth was negligent in one or more of the following ways:
(a) by replacing Ms. Jack's uterus after performing a Cesarean section without achieving hemostasis; and/or
(b) by failing to meet the standard of care in her monitoring and management of Ms. Jack after completing the ...

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