Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against a patient, even though the trial court’s instructions to the jury may have been in error. The case is Venkateswarlu Thota, M.D. v. Young, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2012)(5/11/12).
In Young, the patient sought care from Dr. Thota, a cardiologist. Dr. Thota performed a cardiac catheterization in the hospital one morning, and the patient was released later that day. That evening, he suffered from abdominal pain, and he fell from his chair. He was rushed by ambulance back to the hospital where it was discovered that he had bleeding from the site of the cardiac catheterization and a large hematoma. Soon afterwards, emergency surgery was performed to repair a tear in one of the patient’s arteries that was asserted to have resulted from the cardiac catheterization. Following that, the patient was put on a ventilator. Severe complications thereafter included several strokes, acute renal failure that required dialysis, and the loss of vision in one eye. Three years later, he died of leukemia at age 57.
In the trial of the case, the patient’s family offered expert testimony indicating that Dr. Thota punctured the wrong artery during the catheterization. In response, the doctor partly blamed the patient for not returning to the hospital sooner.
The legal issue for appeal focused upon the trial judge’s instructions to the jury. The gist was whether the court gave the jury an improper instruction called a “new and independent cause,” and whether the court improperly submitted the patient’s conduct as “contributory negligence.” Generally, conduct of a patient that occurs after the negligence of a doctor is not considered to be contributory negligence, although it might be construed as a “failure to mitigate damages.”
Using the trial court’s instructions, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the doctor. The court of appeals ruled that the trial judge’s instructions to the jury were both erroneous and presumptively harmful, and determined that there should be a new trial. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the court of appeals. It ruled that the harm could not be presumed. Accordingly, the Court itself considered the evidence and then determined that – even if the instructions were wrong – the patient should not get a trial with correct instructions because the errors did not, in the Court’s opinion, cause any harm. Thus, the Court ruled that giving erroneous instructions to the jury in this case was “harmless.”