A recent appeal in an Illinois wrongful death case begs the question of what constitutes an appropriate monetary award following a wrongful death or Illinois medical negligence. When Illinois medical negligence has occurred and changed the course of someone’s life forever, what is the price we put on that negligence? This is something Chicago medical malpractice attorneys struggle with and even when you get a sizable verdict, it is no replacement for the damage that has been done. Dobyns v. Chung, M.D. and Sparta Community Hospital, No. 5-07-0568.
The Illinois wrongful death case was brought by the decedent’s husband against a Randolph County hospital following the death of his wife. The plaintiff alleged that during the course of treating his wife for back pain syndrome that the defendant doctor had prescribed an inappropriately high amount of medications, which led to her wrongful death.
The defendant doctor testified at the Illinois trial that he had in fact prescribed her numerous medications during the two and a half years he treated her. The decedent had previously been diagnosed with a bulging disc in her back and had a history of pain in her back, leg and abdomen since 1992. However, despite the numerous narcotic medications the doctor prescribed, she continued to suffer pain in her back, abdomen, hip and knees. The doctor’s testimony stated that during the several years he treated the decedent that he never saw any sign of over-medication.
However, the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony refuted the doctor’s claim that the plaintiff could not have been over-medicated and stated that on autopsy it was discovered that she had significantly elevated levels of Percocet and Demerol in her system. The expert further went on to testify that these elevated levels of medications contributed to the plaintiff’s death.
The Illinois jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $100,000 which was reduced by 50% on the basis of the decedent’s contributory negligence. This means that even though the jury found the defendant doctor contributed to the plaintiff’s death that it also found the decedent equally contributed to her own death by taking the prescribed medications. In these situations, the verdict amount is then reduced by whatever degree the jury finds that the plaintiff contributed to his or her own negligence. So in this case, the plaintiff was essentially awarded $50,000 by the jury.
So even though the plaintiff won in this case, he brought an appeal to a higher court, alleging that the lower court erred by refusing to add to the verdict. The basis of his appeal rested on a claim that the jury award “was manifestly inadequate and contrary to the evidence,” i.e. that the jury award was too little given the plaintiff’s loss and the overwhelming evidence against the defendant doctor.
However, the appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s argument and affirmed the lower court’s refusal to add to the verdict award. The appellate court cited the Illinois Wrongful Death Act, stating that under the Act it was impossible to measure the propriety of damage awards by comparing the present case with other Illinois wrongful death cases.
The appellate court further went on to explain that they did not see any concrete evidence in the court record referring to a specific loss of money or economic loss as a result of the decedent’s death. And just as it is difficult for Illinois medical malpractice attorneys to assign a dollar amount to an individual’s pain and suffering, it is equally difficult for judges. Because the appellate court did not see any clear evidence to demonstrate that the jury or lower court erred in regards to the award amount, they deferred to the jury: “It is not within our province to substitute our judgment for that of the jury to determine the monetary value of the loss of society in this case”.
However, plaintiff further argued that the defendant doctor’s attorney stated in his closing argument that if there were liability against the doctor, that “a fair verdict on damages would be $1 million.” The appeals court rejected this argument, stating that the commentary by the defense counsel was an opinion and should not be considered a binding judicial admission.
As further evidence that this matter of assigning a monetary value to a person’s life is a difficult issue is the fact that one of the appellate court judges continued to disagree with the rest of the court. This justice dissented and stated that the damage owed to the decedent’s husband of ten years and her 11 year-old and 14 year-old sons “was so low that it is against the manifest way to the evidence.”
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