New Trial Ordered When Anesthesiologist Aided Fainting Juror During Malpractice Trial

A woman was admitted to the hospital complaining of abdominal pain. She was 35 weeks pregnant. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure and preeclampsia. After attempting to initiate preterm labor and discovering a prolapsed umbilical cord, an obstetrician performed an emergency cesarean section. As a result of the cesarean section, the woman suffered blood loss and her blood pressure dropped.


The following day the obstetrician performed a second surgery to treat the woman’s low blood pressure and blood loss. During this surgery, the woman underwent a full hysterectomy. In preparation for the second surgery, an anesthesiologist inserted an IV into the woman’s right arm. During surgery, the woman’s arm became discolored and swollen because the IV infiltrated. An infiltrated IV occurs when the fluid from an IV that is supposed to be entering the vein enters tissue outside the vein instead. Later that day, the woman underwent a third surgery to relieve internal pressure in her right arm and hand. Six days later, the woman underwent a fourth surgery to close the incision made earlier to relieve the arm and hand pressure.


The woman sued both the obstetrician and the anesthesiologist. The complaint alleged that the obstetrician was negligent in performing the cesarean section and monitoring the woman’s postoperation bleeding and complications. The complaint alleged that the anesthesiologist had acted negligently with respect to the infiltrated IV in the woman’s right arm. The obstetrician and anesthesiologist answered the complaint separately. Each was represented by separate counsel.


During the obstetrician’s testimony, a juror fainted in the jury box. The anesthesiologist got up from where he was sitting in the gallery, entered the jury box, and began treating the juror. The juror recovered and was excused. The woman moved for a mistrial. The trial court interviewed each juror, seeking to ascertain his or her ability to remain fair and neutral. After receiving responses from all remaining jurors that they could be fair and impartial, the trial court denied the motion for a mistrial.


Prior to deliberating, the jury was instructed to judge the acts or omissions of each of the defendants separately. The jury was also given separate negligence instructions for each defendant. The jury was not asked to apportion fault between the two doctors. The claims against them were connected only to the extent that the trial court directed the jury to include the woman’s hand and arm injuries in the damages recoverable from the obstetrician if the jury concluded the hysterectomy surgery resulted from the obstetrician’s negligence. The jury returned defense verdicts for both physicians. The Iowa District Court for Polk County entered judgments on the jury verdicts for the obstetrician and anesthesiologist.


The woman filed a motion for a new trial on the basis that the warm feelings and regard that the jury gained toward the anesthesiologist during the incident with the fainting juror created an unfair and prejudicial attitude toward both physicians’ collective case. The Iowa Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for a new trial as to both the obstetrician and anesthesiologist.


The Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The court held that where the anesthesiologist helped the stricken juror, but the obstetrician did not, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the woman a new trial on her claims against the obstetrician.


Where the anesthesiologist helped the stricken juror, but the obstetrician did not, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the woman a new trial on her claims against the obstetrician. The court reasoned that a new trial could be ordered against the anesthesiologist alone because the issues were not so intertwined as to necessitate a new trial for both defendants. The claims against the two physicians were distinct and arose out of separate acts of alleged malpractice at different times. The alleged negligence of the obstetrician and anesthesiologist arose in different circumstances. There was no legal relationship, such as an employment or credentialing relationship, between them. The jury was asked to and did determine each doctor's negligence separately without any weighing of comparative fault. It was possible to order a new trial as to the anesthesiologist and not as to the obstetrician without resulting in unfair prejudice to either the woman or anesthesiologist. The court discounted the woman’s argument that the anesthesiologist's actions engendered a sense of undue goodwill and respect in the jury toward the medical profession generally to such an extent that the court should overturn the trial court's on-the-scene exercise of discretion. The anesthesiologist was the only person who actually helped the ailing juror. The trial court, which witnessed the scene, found nothing in the obstetrician's behavior during the incident that could have engendered any particular good will in the obstetrician’s favor.


The Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed the trial court’s entry of judgment on a jury verdict for the obstetrician, reversed the trial court’s entry of judgment on a jury verdict for the anesthesiologist, and remanded for a new trial on the woman’s claims against the anesthesiologist.


See: Jack v. Booth, 2015 WL 292051 (Iowa, January 23, 2015) (not designated for publication).


See also Medical Law Perspectives, January 2015 Report: Mothers, Infants, and Obstetrical Injuries: Labor and Delivery Liability.


See also Medical Law Perspectives, March 2014 Report: Blood Draws, Testing, Transfusions: Venipuncture Injury, Inaccurate Results, Tainted Blood - The Liability Risks


See also Medical Law Perspectives, August 2012 Report: Anesthesiology Errors: Complications, Malpractice, and Catastrophe