Trial Courts Not Required to Consider Pleadings When Deciding Whether to Grant a Directed Verdict
A trial court improperly issued a directed verdict in favor of a Chillicothe doctor accused of negligence in a woman’s death, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
The case involves rules for when courts may issue “directed verdicts” after opening statements. Directed verdicts are orders that take a case away from the jury.
Writing for the court’s majority, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger stated that when a trial court is deciding whether to grant a directed verdict after an opening statement, it may consider the pleadings (formal documents asserting claims and defenses) but is not required to review them. She added that trial courts may issue a directed verdict at the close of an opening statement only when the statement indicates that the party cannot “sustain its cause of action or defense at trial.”
The 5-2 decision affirmed the judgment of the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which had reversed the trial court’s verdict, but disagreed with the appellate court’s determination that the trial court was required to consider pleadings in the case. The case now returns to the trial court for further proceedings.
Karen Parrish was admitted to the Adena Regional Medical Center in December 2004, and Michael Jones, D.O., provided her medical care. She was diagnosed with an acute nerve disorder. She was then transferred to a Chillicothe rehabilitation center, where Christopher J. Skocik, D.O., was her doctor.
A few days after being admitted to the rehab facility, Parrish was found unresponsive by the staff and rushed back to the hospital, where resuscitation efforts failed and she died. The cause of death was determined to be a pulmonary embolism caused by blood clots that had lodged in her lungs, blocking the flow of blood to her heart.
Karen’s husband, Sandy Parrish, filed a medical malpractice suit against the two facilities and the doctors. Parrish alleged that the medical staff treating Karen was negligent in their treatment when they did not prescribe anti-coagulation therapy; did not properly treat, diagnose, and monitor her; and failed to respond in a timely manner with medical care. Parrish alleged that their negligence caused Karen’s death.
A jury trial began in January 2011. When Parrish’s attorney finished the opening statement, the attorney for Dr. Skocik and the rehab center (the Skocik defendants) asked the trial court for a directed verdict, arguing that Parrish had not set forth in the opening statement a standard of care, how they deviated from that standard, or how they caused Karen’s death. The attorney for Dr. Skocik and the center argued that Parrish had not established a case of medical malpractice against them.
The court granted a directed verdict in favor of the Skocik defendants. (The case against Dr. Jones continued, and the jury ultimately found that he was not negligent in Karen’s death.)
Parrish appealed the order granting the directed verdict to the Fourth District Court of Appeals. The court reversed the trial court’s order and sent the case back to the trial court to reconsider its ruling based on both the opening statement and the pleadings.
The Fourth District also informed the Supreme Court that its decision conflicted with one from the Tenth District Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court agreed and chose to hear the case.
Justice Lanzinger explained in today’s majority decision that a rule governing procedures in civil cases, Civ.R. 50(A), allows a motion for a directed verdict to be made at three distinct points after trial has begun – after an opponent’s opening statement, at the close of an opponent’s presentation of evidence, or after all evidence has been presented. In this case, the court must determine what standard a trial court must apply when deciding whether to grant a motion for a directed verdict after an opening statement, she stated.
“We cannot hold that trial courts are required to consider the pleadings when ruling on a motion for directed verdict following opening statement, because the motion focuses on what was said during the opening statement, and the trial court may be able to dispose of the motion solely upon the basis of the statement and without consulting the pleadings,” she wrote. “Thus, we hold that a trial court that rules on such a motion is not required to consider the allegations contained in the pleadings.”
“[T]his does not mean that a court is forbidden from considering the pleadings in ruling on the motion,” she noted.
Citing a 1975 Ohio Supreme Court case (Brinkmoeller v. Wilson), Justice Lanzinger described two principles that must guide trial courts when they consider motions for directed verdicts: “(1) exercise great caution in sustaining the motion and (2) liberally construe the opening statement in favor of the party against whom the motion is made.”
“Only if the opening statement shows that a party is completely unable to sustain a cause of action should the court take the case away from the jury by directing a verdict,” she wrote. “If, however, it is unclear from the opening statement whether the party against whom the motion is made can proceed with its case, the court must determine whether that party has otherwise set forth a cause of action or defense. It is at this point that the court may choose to consult the pleadings to determine whether ‘all the facts expected to be proved, and those that have been stated, do not constitute a cause of action or a defense,’ pursuant to Brinkmoeller. In short, the court must give the party against whom the motion is made the benefit of the doubt.”
She concluded: “In this case, when the Skocik defendants moved for directed verdict, they argued that during his opening statement, Parrish had failed to cite any deviation from a standard of care by Dr. Skocik and had not connected Dr. Skocik to the alleged wrongdoing. Although Parrish may have failed to mention certain elements of his claim against the Skocik defendants during the opening statement, that failure in and of itself did not permit the trial court to grant a directed verdict in their favor, because Parrish did not indicate an inability to sustain his cause of action. Although Parrish’s counsel focused on Dr. Jones during the opening statement, he had also sued the Skocik defendants, and Parrish should have been permitted to present proof of the Skocik defendants’ negligence at trial.”
Justice Lanzinger’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.
Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote a dissent that was joined by Justice Terrence O’Donnell.
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy concluded that the holding of the majority renders Civ.R. 50(A) “virtually meaningless” because a trial court may only grant a motion for directed verdict at the close of opening statement when a party admits it cannot sustain its claim or defense. She noted that Civ.R. 50 does not provide guidance on what a court must consider when deciding whether to grant a motion for directed verdict made at the end of an opening statement.
Relying on the canon of construction that similar subject matters must be construed together, Justice Kennedy looked to the trial procedure statute, R.C. 2315.01(A)(1) and (2). The trial procedure statute provides that when a party chooses to make an opening statement, the party must concisely set forth its claim or defense. Considering the trial procedure statute together with Civ.R. 50(A), Justice Kennedy wrote that she would hold that a party must state a claim or defense in its opening statement to avoid a directed verdict.
To avoid a directed verdict in this case, she concluded that Parrish had to establish a prima facie (at first sight, or on its face) case of medical malpractice in his opening statement. After explaining the elements of a prima facie medical malpractice case and reviewing the transcript of the opening statement, she determined that Parrish did not establish his malpractice case in the opening statement.
“In his opening statement, Parrish’s counsel set forth a prima facie case of medical malpractice against Dr. Jones,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “However, even construing the facts in a light most favorable to Parrish, he did not set forth a prima facie claim of malpractice against Dr. Skocik. Parrish did not claim that Dr. Skocik had breached a standard of care regarding Karen Parrish’s care or that any breach of care proximately caused her death. And Dr. Skocik made no admissions in his answer or pursuant to Civ.R. 36 that would assist Parrish in making his medical-malpractice case against Dr. Skocik.”
Justice Lanzinger addressed the dissent’s interpretation of the trial procedure statute: “[The dissent’s] conclusion … overlooks the discretionary nature of R.C. 2315.01, which provides that trials shall proceed in the order set forth in that section ‘unless for special reasons the court otherwise directs.’ … The dissent’s reading of the statute overlooks the nonevidentiary role of opening statements and effectively takes away the discretion given to trial court judges to deviate from the statute ‘for special reasons.’”
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