Plaintiff's Counsel's Prejudicial Comments and Arguments that Damages Should Represent Value of a Human Life Mandated Reversal and New Trial

A woman was admitted to a hospital with complaints of confusion, decreased appetite, and tremors, and also had end-stage renal disease, respiratory failure, pneumonia, and had been on dialysis. An immediate concern was probable sepsis from the dialysis catheter. This was the only access her doctors had to conduct dialysis. She was treated with antibiotics, and the catheter was left in place for dialysis. Initially, her body responded well to the antibiotics, and her white blood cell count and temperature lowered.


Three days later the woman’s blood pressure dropped unexpectedly, and she began to have abdominal pain. The doctors attempted dialysis, but the pain continued and her blood pressure dropped more. The doctors made plans to remove the catheter and administer additional tests to include a CT scan. An infectious-disease specialist was brought in, as well. Later that day the woman went into cardiopulmonary arrest and could not be revived.


The woman's husband filed a medical malpractice and wrongful death complaint against the woman’s physician. The main issue to be resolved by the jury was whether the woman’s physician breached the applicable standard of care by deciding to treat the infection with antibiotics and to leave the allegedly infected catheter in place, since it was the only access for dialysis. The Circuit Court entered judgment on a jury verdict awarding the patient's husband $1,000,000. The physician appealed.


The Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed and remanded. The court concluded that the plaintiff's counsel's improper comments and arguments, including that the damages should represent “the value of a human life,” when combined with the erroneous jury instructions, mandate reversal and a new trial.


The court held that the trial court committed reversible error when it instructed the jury to consider the “value of life” of the deceased patient when awarding damages. Mississippi Code Section 11–1–69(2) provided that “In any wrongful death action, there shall be no recovery for loss of enjoyment of life caused by death.” This statute bars hedonic damages, which are the damages for the loss of enjoyment of life, which purportedly compensate an injured person for the loss of quality of life or in the case of a wrongful death action for the value of life itself.


The court also held that statements made during closing arguments by counsel for patient's husband prejudiced the physician. Counsel referred to the destruction of the jury system in Nazi Country, whether the jurors would have the courage to determine right from wrong, and encouraged the jurors to think of the value of patient's life through the eyes of her children.


See: Laney v. Vance, 2013 WL 1760875 (Miss. April 25, 2013) (not designated for publication).