Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules Juror Was Incorrectly Removed from Medical Malpractice Case - Bruckshaw v. Frankford Hospital


January 9, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has considered several recent cases that interest me as a Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawyer. One was Bruckshaw v. Frankford Hospital, in which Thomas Bruckshaw alleged that a medical mistake caused the death of his wife, Patricia Bruckshaw, at Frankford Hospital in Philadelphia. For reasons unclear even to the high court, the trial court removed one juror at the end of the trial and replaced her with an alternate, with no notice to the parties. The jury with the substituted juror ultimately found against Bruckshaw, but Bruckshaw moved for a new trial once his attorney realized what happened. The Superior Court held on appeal that this error was harmless, but the Pennsylvania high court disagreed and ordered a new trial.

Patricia Bruckshaw died two days after heart valve surgery at Frankford Hospital. Dr. Brian Priest was the surgeon and Dr. Randy Metcalf was involved in post-operative care. The opinion does not go into details about the allegations of negligence made by Thomas Bruckshaw. However, the lawsuit alleged medical malpractice, wrongful death and a survival action against the hospital and both doctors. The trial court's usual practice, followed here, was to not tell jurors which of them were alternates. However, Juror 12, a principal juror, went to deliberations and Juror 20, an alternate, was in her place on the jury's return. This was apparently done by a court officer with no notice to the parties or trial court, but no record of why is available. Juror 20 acted as foreperson when they delivered their verdict for the defendants. Shortly after the verdict, Bruckshaw's counsel realized there was a substitution and moved for a new trial, which was denied.

On appeal to the Superior Court, the defendants argued that the error was harmless, and the Superior Court agreed, affirming the denial of a new trial. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed that decision. Bruckshaw argued that the substitution harmed him by denying him a chance to argue for another alternate, and because Juror 20 became foreperson and was the deciding vote. The high court first agreed that the substitution broke several rules and held that a juror may be substituted only by a trial court, on the record, in open court, with notice and for cause. It then agreed with the plaintiff that prejudice should be presumed from these mistakes because a showing of prejudice is impossible and the departure from the rules was "inimical to the integrity of our justice system." It drew an analogy to ex parte communications with the jury, which routinely cause new trial orders. It distinguished the case from others where it required a showing of prejudice, saying the lack of a record made it impossible to defer to the trial court's judgment.

As a Philadelphia birth injury lawyer, I applaud this decision. As the high court noted, a new trial is an extreme remedy. Everyone involved in the case will have to do all the work over again, extending the uncertainty as well as the expenses. However, I agree that the error in this case was serious enough to warrant it. In order to get a fair trial, both sides should be kept informed and have the right to oppose any moves by the trial court they feel affects their rights. The substitution here was in fact so irregular and so stealthy that it suggests some kind of underhanded behavior. An order for a new trial helps avoid enshrining that impropriety as an acceptable way to dispense justice in Pennsylvania, which Pennsylvania medical negligence lawyers and their opponents should agree is the right goal.

If you believe your family was hurt by the negligence of a medical professional or hospital in Pennsylvania, Rosenbaum & Associates can help. To tell us your story and learn more about us, call us today at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 or send us a message online.

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