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Speaking of Medical Malpractice Insurance is Hazardous to Your Trial’s Health

Posted by Andrew J. Barovick | Oct 24, 2009 | 0 Comments

In a case decided October 13th, Grogan v. Nizam , NY Slip Op 07375 (2d Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, issued a decision that underestimates the sophistication of modern jurors, and that continues to legitimize a silly precedent.  The decision is short, and worth reading.

The essential holding is that if the jury finds out that the defendant doctor is insured, that defendant has been prejudiced to the extent that the court has the discretion to declare a mistrial.  The sole mention of the concept of insurance occurred when plaintiff's counsel asked his OB/GYN expert about his involvement in risk management work.  The expert responded, “I'm a Risk Management Consultant to the Princeton Insurance Company, which is a professional liability carrier, in Obstetrics and Gynecology.” 

Plaintiff's expert did not conclude his statement by standing up, pointing to the defendant OB/GYN, and stating “By the way, see that guy sitting next to the defense lawyer? Sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, he's insured by a professional liability carrier!”

As Tom Valet, who handled the appeal for the plaintiffs (appellant-respondents), told me, “nobody implied that the defendant had insurance or that a verdict would be covered by insurance.”  In other words, there was no prejudice to the defendant.

Exactly what types of “prejudice” are the courts worried about?  The Grogan Court traveled far back in time, to 1911, to support itself with Simpson v. Foundation Co. , 201 N.Y. 479 (1911), a Court of Appeals case that warned that a jury's knowledge that a defendant in a negligence case is insured may induce that jury to give a larger-than-reasonable verdict.  On the other hand, the same appellate body (the Second Department) felt, as of 1977, that if jurors knew that an insurance company would be paying the judgment, they may ultimately come to believe that they, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, would be providing the primary funding.  And therefore, such jurors would unreasonably award less.

But times have changed, and the citizens that comprise the jury pool are more sophisticated.  Many, if not most people are aware of the role that insurance companies play in our civil justice system.  To assume that the mere mention of the broad concept of professional liability insurance is enough to warrant a mistrial is unrealistic, and frankly underestimates the intelligence and sophistication of the citizens of New York State.  Moreover, such an inflexible adherence to precedent has resulted in the high cost of having to re-try a complex medical malpractice case, and has delayed justice for the plaintiffs.

What are the lessons here?  As Tom Valet put it: (a) caution your experts to avoid uttering the word “insurance” at trial; and (b) if they mention it anyway, make sure a proper curative instruction is timely given by the trial judge.

But if you end up arguing before an appellate panel after a mistrial has been granted, my recommended argument is as follows: “C'mon people! Get real! Welcome to 2009!”

About the Author

Andrew J. Barovick

Mr. Barovick is a graduate of Columbia College and Cardozo School of Law. He began his legal career at the Queens District Attorney’s Office, where he tried over 20 felonies to verdict, and argued an equal number of appeals before the Appellate Division, Second Department, the New York Court of Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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REPRESENTATIVE VERDICTS & SETTLEMENTS:

$7.9 million dollars for infant client who suffered severe brain injuries due to post- delivery medical malpractice.

$500,000 wrongful death/medical malpractice settlement on behalf of patient brought to hospital emergency room with serious injuries who suffered complications while unmonitored and died.

$425,000 wrongful death/medical malpractice settlement during trial on behalf of senior hospital patient whose surgeon failed to timely address her worsening symptoms, resulting in her death.

$250,000 to young man whose physician failed to diagnose an impending torsion testicle, causing the loss of the affected testicle.

$200,000 to young mother whose OB/GYN failed to timely diagnose and treat her ectopic pregnancy, resulting in excruciating, long-term pain and the need for surgery to address the ectopic pregnancy once it was diagnosed.

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