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Tennessee Court of Appeals Sends Medical Malpractice Case Back to Trial Court with Instructions Concerning Number of Peremptory Challenges

If you have never actually seen a lawsuit being tried in court (or been called for jury duty), you may not be familiar with the jury selection process in an east Tennessee medical malpractice, wrongful death, or personal injury case.

Sometimes, potential jurors are excluded “for cause” – that is, because they know one of the parties or attorneys personally or because they do not believe that they will be able to be fair to both sides for some other reason. Each party is also afforded a certain number of “peremptory” challenges that may be used to exclude jurors without the need for a reason or explanation. The only limitation on peremptory challenges is that they may not be used to discriminate against a particular gender, race, or ethnicity.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs in a recent case heard by the Tennessee Court of Appeals were the parents of an infant who died during childbirth in 2009. The parents filed suit against the defendants (a hospital, a treating physician, and others) in the Circuit Court of Tipton County, asserting claims of negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and vicarious liability for the death of their child.

The trial court granted a directed verdict as to the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim on the basis that the claim had effectively been abandoned. Thereafter, the jury returned a verdict finding that the doctor and the hospital had committed medical negligence but that the child’s death was not caused by it. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court had erred in limiting them to fewer than eight peremptory challenges, in denying their challenge to the defendants’ striking of an African-American juror, and in excluding the plaintiffs’ video of the child’s delivery.

Decision of the Court

The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, concluding that the trial court had erred in treating the plaintiffs as a single “party plaintiff.” Under the circumstances, the court opined that the plaintiffs were entitled to eight peremptory challenges – rather than just four. Since the trial court’s error resulted in prejudice to the judicial process, and that necessitated a new trial, the plaintiffs’ remaining issues were pretermitted.

Peremptory challenges are allowed by the legislature as an “act of grace.” They can only be exercised as a matter of right to the extent allowed by statute. Tennessee Code Annotated § 22-3-104 allows “either party to a civil action” to challenge up to four jurors without assigning any cause. The statute also specifies that, when there is more than one party plaintiff, an additional four peremptory challenges are to be granted.

The term “party plaintiff” is not defined in the statute. The trial court held that the wrongful death action at issue was “really the estate’s lawsuit” and constrained the plaintiffs to four challenges. Since neither of the child’s parents had surrendered their parental rights to the child, the appellate court noted that the wrongful death action passed to them equally. Since they had an equal right to participate in the action, they thus constituted separate party plaintiffs for the purposes of deciding the requisite number of peremptory challenges under the statute.

To Speak to a Knoxville Medical Malpractice Lawyer

Doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies fight hard against a finding of liability in cases alleging medical negligence. At the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., we aggressively represent people who have been wronged by members of the health care profession. To schedule an appointment to discuss your Knoxville, Maryville, or other east Tennessee medical malpractice claim, call us at 865-524-5657 to schedule an appointment. Do not delay in seeking legal advice concerning your case, since claims not filed within the Tennessee statute of limitations and statute of repose are almost always dismissed.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Judgment for Defendant in Medical Malpractice Case, Saying “Sudden Emergency” Instruction Should Not Have Been Given

Tennessee Court of Appeals Finds Reversible Error in Birth Injury Malpractice Case Due to Hospital’s Failure to Disclose New and Different Testimony by Nurses

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