In Mazzie v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, et al., 2021 PA Super 73 (2020), the Superior Court affirmed a trial court’s decision to order a new trial on damages when a jury issued a zero-dollar verdict for non-economic damages.
Mrs. Mazzie underwent laparoscopic surgery to repair an incisional hernia, related to a prior hysterectomy, and an umbilical hernia. Dr. Garcia performed the surgery at Lehigh Valley Hospital (“LVH”). Following the laparoscopic surgery, Mrs. Mazzie was discharged from LVH and transported to Manor Care Easton. A few days later, however, she returned to LVH with septic shock and was rushed to the operating room. As a result of the infection, Mrs. Mazzie was put into a medically induced coma, and underwent numerous additional surgical procedures necessary to save her life.
Mr. and Mrs. Mazzie sued the defendants alleging Mrs. Mazzie suffered post-operative complications because Dr. Garcia negligently pierced Mrs. Mazzie’s bowel during surgery. Mr. Mazzie sought damages for loss of consortium. The parties stipulated that economic damages were limited to medical expenses in the amount of $39,000.00. The case proceeded to a jury trial. At the close of trial, the defendants moved for compulsory non-suit, claiming the Mazzies did not meet their burden of proof to show that Dr. Garcia was negligent. The trial court denied the motion. After deliberations, the jury determined Dr. Garcia acted negligently in performing Mrs. Mazzie’s abdominal surgery and awarded her past medical expenses of $39,000.00. However, the jury declined to award Mrs. Mazzie non-economic damages for pain and suffering.
Following the trial, the Mazzies filed a post-trial motion seeking a new trial on damages. The defendants filed a cross-motion for Judgement Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV), alleging the Mazzies failed to introduce expert testimony within the requisite degree of “medical certainty.” Following oral argument, the trial court granted the Mazzies’ motion for a new trial on damages only and denied defendants’ cross-motion for JNOV. The defendants appealed to the Superior Court claiming the trial court erred in denying their request for JNOV and ordering a new trial on damages.
On appeal, it was determined the Mazzies’ liability expert testified that it was “more likely than not” that Dr. Garcia negligently performed Mrs. Mazzie’s abdominal surgery. Specifically, the Mazzies’ expert opined that Dr. Garcia’s use of a Veress needle in the area of prior scarring was a violation of the standard of care. The defendants claimed this statement did not meet the Mazzies’ burden to show that their expert’s testimony was not rendered to within a “reasonable degree of medical certainty.” The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the defendants’ request for JNOV because the Mazzies’ expert testified that “Mrs. Mazzie’s prior history of abdominal surgeries was an absolute contraindication for insertion of the Veress needle into the area of the umbilical hernia.” Thus, while the expert did not use the magic words “to within a reasonable degree of medical certainty,” the Court determined his opinions were rendered to that degree of certainty.
Next, the Court addressed the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial on damages only. The defendants argued the trial court erred by substituting its decision for that of the jury. Specifically, the defendants argued the jury’s zero-dollar verdict for non-economic damages was supported by sufficient evidence demonstrating that Mrs. Mazzie’s pain and suffering was related to her pre-existing condition and not directly related to the aftermath of hernia surgery. Alternatively, the defendants claimed the jury’s zero-dollar verdict for non-economic damages represented a “compromise verdict,” i.e., a compromise to limit damages when there is a split on the question of liability.
The Court determined the grant of a new trial is an effective instrumentality in cases where “the amount of the verdict bears no reasonable relation to the loss suffered by the plaintiff.” Kiser v. Schulte, 648 A.2d 1, 4 (Pa. 1994). As such, where “the jury’s verdict is so contrary to the evidence as to ‘shock one’s sense of justice,’” a trial court should not hesitate to set aside the verdict and award a new trial. See id. Furthermore, a trial court has the discretion to either grant a new trial for both damages and liability or for damages only. Mader v. Duquesne Light Co., 241 A.3d 600, 614 (Pa. 2020).
In determining whether the trial court “abused its discretion” in granting a new trial on damages only, the Superior Court analyzed the trial court’s reasoning, which states in part:
Human experience teaches us that Mrs. Mazzie’s injuries are of the type that cause pain and suffering. She underwent numerous surgical procedures on her abdomen, she lost a tooth and sustained damage to her dominant hand. Moreover, noneconomic damages encompass more than just pain and suffering; they also encompass loss of ability to enjoy the pleasures of life. Unquestionably, Mrs. Mazzie was unable to enjoy any of the pleasures of life while in a six week medically induced coma . . . Thereafter, Mrs. Mazzie spent several months in rehabilitation centers relearning basic skills with her left hand and strengthening her weakened muscles. She lost her independence and had to rely on the support of family members. All of this together clearly demonstrates that there was no reasonable basis for the jury to believe that Mrs. Mazzie’s injuries caused no pain and suffering.
Although the issue of Dr. Garcia’s liability was contested at trial, that issue was presented to the jury through competing expert witnesses regarding the appropriate standard of care. The jury was free to evaluate the believability of each expert along with the rest of the evidence presented. This is simply not a case where the issues of liability and damages are intertwined. The jury’s affirmative resolution of negligence and causation in favor of Mrs. Mazzie does not suggest that their decision on liability was in doubt. Any other conclusions by [the court] would be based purely on speculation and conjecture.
The Superior Court highlighted the defendants’ expert admitted Mrs. Mazzie suffered serious post-operative injuries, namely a severe abdominal infection and lung injury due to aspirating the stomach contents into her lung. Finally, the Court determined there was no evidence to support the claim that the jury’s liability and causation determinations were intertwined with its verdict on damages because there was no claim for contributory negligence, nor did the jury compromise the verdict concerning the medical expenses. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial on damages.