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Allegheny County Judge Vacates Jury's Verdict in Med Mal Case "in the Interests of Justice"

A trial court judge in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania recently took the rare step of vacating a jury's verdict in favor of the defendant doctor following a medical malpractice trial. In her written opinion, Judge Judith L. A. Friedman stated that she granted the plaintiff's motion for a new trial in Bedillion v. Chen because the verdict of the jury "was so against the weight of the evidence as to shock the conscience of the court," adding that her ruling was made "in the interests of justice."

The plaintiff alleged that the defendant pulmonologist was negligent for failing to make a timely diagnosis of lung cancer. On the witness stand, the doctor testified that she had suspected all along that the plaintiff's decedent did in fact have lung cancer, but that she resisted the biopsy necessary to make the diagnosis. Judge Friedman wrote that the doctor's medical records contradicted this testimony, strongly suggesting that the doctor had testified untruthfully.

Judge Friedman wrote that a new trial was also warranted because she erroneously failed to grant a motion in limine of the plaintiff to bar the affirmative defense of contributory negligence. While this claim was ultimately dismissed during the course of trial, it allowed the defendant to present evidence that was irrelevant to the question of her negligence and deemed by Judge Friedman to be prejudicial, confusing, and misleading. Judge Friedman termed this decision a "serious and harmful error."

Judge Friedman's decision to vacate the defense verdict is on appeal to the Superior Court. In urging the Superior Court to uphold her ruling, Judge Friedman also stated that the defendant doctor should be precluded from testifying in her own defense at the new trial due to her prior testimony which, in the Judge's view, "was in all probability intentionally untruthful on material issues." Judge Friedman wrote that "(i)t is the duty of the court to prevent the submission of evidence that is untrustworthy of belief to a jury."

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