West Virginia Record

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Supreme Court says trial court didn't err in refusing to grant new trial

State Supreme Court

By Kyla Asbury | Jun 15, 2019


CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision in denying a new trial in a lawsuit involving a Huntington obstetrician.

"Having considered the briefs submitted on appeal, the appendix record, the parties’ oral arguments, and the applicable legal authority, we find no error," the June 10 opinion states. "Accordingly, we affirm the order of the circuit court."

Justice Evan Jenkins authored the majority opinion. Justices Margaret Workman and John Hutchison dissented and authored a separate opinion.

On June 23, 2014, Dr. Carolyn Clark induced Chasity Smith at Cabell Huntington Hospital and later in the evening, she suffered a placental abruption and Clark attempted to deliver the baby vaginally with forceps before preparing her for a cesarean section. The baby was born asphyxiated and immediately transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit. The baby died the following day.

In 2015, Robert Smith filed a complaint against Clark and the hospital in Cabell Circuit Court alleging she was negligent and breached the standard of care when delivering the baby, which resulted in the baby's death. A trial occurred in May 2017, where a jury returned a verdict in Clark and the hospital's favor. Robert Smith then filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied. Smith then appealed to the Supreme Court.

"After reviewing all reasonable and legitimate inferences in the Respondents’ favor, we conclude that the verdict rendered in this case in Respondent’s favor was not 'against the clear weight of the evidence,' and the verdict shall stand," the opinion states. "It has been well-established in this Court’s case law that '[i]t is the peculiar and exclusive province of a jury to weigh the evidence and to resolve questions of fact when the testimony of witnesses regarding them is conflicting and the finding of the jury upon such facts will not ordinarily be disturbed.'"

Robert Smith argued one of the jurors had a longstanding business relationship with the hospital.

Jenkins wrote that it is not the province of the Supreme Court to invade the jury’s determination when it is clear that the verdict was based on a reasonable interpretation of the evidence presented.

In their dissent, Hutchison and Workman disagree that the case was fairly tried. Hutchison wrote that he would have granted a new trial because he felt there was a prejudicial error that had occurred.

"Given the long-standing and ongoing business relationship between Juror No. 82 and the attorneys for the hospital, and the equivocal nature of Juror No. 82’s responses during voir dire, I believe the trial court abused its discretion by not removing Juror No. 82 from the jury panel for cause," Hutchison wrote. "By refusing to do so, the trial court forced the plaintiff to use one of his peremptory strikes to remove Juror No. 82 from the panel. As a result, the plaintiff suffered significant prejudice as he was forced to keep another juror upon whom he would have exercised that strike."

Hutchison wrote that he was clear to him that the circuit court made several errors.

"Together, these errors caused substantial prejudice to the plaintiff and warranted a new trial," Hutchison wrote.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Case number: 17-1086

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