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The Ohio Supreme Court Places Additional Limits In Medical Malpractice Cases

The Ohio Supreme Court continued its assault on established Ohio legal precedent when it decided the case of Estate of Hall v. Akron General Medical Center (decided March 24, 2010). The court's decision in effect makes inapplicable a rule known as res ipsa loquitur in a medical malpractice case. Res ips loquitur is a Latin phrase that means "the thing speaks for itself". It is used to establish negligence when two conditions are met: (1)the instrumentality causing injury was within the exclusive control of the defendant and (2) the injury would not have occurred if ordinary care had been used. Basically, the rule states that based on these particular facts, the person would not have been injured except under circumstances where the defendant acted negligently.

 

In the case before the court, the defendant surgeon had inserted a dialysis catheter into the plaintiff's jugular vein. A nearby blood vessel burst and the patient died shortly after the procedure was completed. The patient's family brought a wrongful death action. The family presented the testimony of two physicians who concluded that the defendant probably lacerated this blood vessel when doing the procedure and explained how this probably happened. Both of these experts also said that regardless of what actually transpired, this result only occurs if the procedure is done negligently. The defendant presented the testimony of an expert who said that the blood vessel in question may have been weak and burst without any negligence.

 

The plaintiff's attorney asked the court to instruct the jury on res ipsa loquitur. The trial court refused. The court of appeals reversed and concluded that the instruction should have been given under these facts. The case found its way to the Ohio Supreme Court. In a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that if there is any reasonable evidence presented by the defendant that the injury could have occurred without negligence, the instruction cannot be given.

 

The dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer pointed out that a prior Ohio Supreme Court decision had held that the instruction should be given even when the defendant presents evidence that the injury could have occurred due to non-negligent causes. In that case decided in 1985, the court held it was for the jury to determine whether res ipsa loquitur should apply when there is both evidence supporting the application of this inference and evidence opposed to it. As the Chief Justice stated:

 

"The new rule adopted by the majority runs a substantial risk of largely foreclosing the use of res ipsa loquitur in medical malpractice cases. The defendant must now only posit a realistic alternative explanation for the cause of injury, which seems very likely given the abundant availability of experts in medical-malpractice cases, and the plaintiff will be deprived of the benefit of the long-standing negligence doctrine."

Once again, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled in a way that will make it more difficult for injured people in Ohio to obtain redress for their claims.