For the first time since medical malpractice panels were put into effect in New Hampshire, a jury has ignored the unanimous decision of the panel, which found no negligence on the part of the cardiologist being sued, and ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
The case involved an otherwise healthy 36-year old man who suffered from two fainting spells in April and September of 2004. He visited a cardiology practice three times, but they apparently did not perform the proper tests and told him that nothing was wrong with him. The man died a few months later and an autopsy revealed a lesion in the heart, which the coroner believed had developed months before and indicated heart disease.
In 2007, New Hampshire began using medical malpractice panels made up of a retired judge, a physician, and a lawyer, to encourage settlement of malpractice cases. The panel hears the evidence in private and does not have to follow typical court rules. Its decision is not binding, and plaintiffs can still seek a jury trial. If the panel’s decision is unanimous, juries are allowed to hear about it. The idea of a panel has been popular with insurance companies and the health care field, but trial attorneys view the panel as an additional step that makes it more difficult and costly for plaintiffs to bring a case to court. The malpractice panel law was enacted in 2005, but the first case was not heard until 2007. The most recent data on the panels (through September 2012) reveals that malpractice panels heard 213 cases, of which 163 resulted in unanimous decisions, 112 of those were in favor of the doctor or hospital.
In the case involving the 36-year-old man, a medical malpractice panel heard the case in 2009 and unanimously sided with the physician. Despite this, the jury, after hearing all of the evidence, found in favor of the man’s parents and awarded them $1.5 million. The plaintiff’s attorney speculated that this may have been because the evidence had not been completely gathered in 2009 when the panel was hearing the case, but four years later there was more evidence for a jury to consider. When faced with having to address the panel’s decision to the jury, the plaintiff’s attorney merely told them that “under the constitution, my clients were entitled to a jury trial.”