Gourley v. METHODIST HEALTH SYSTEM

Decision Date16 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. S-00-679.,S-00-679.
Citation663 N.W.2d 43,265 Neb. 918
PartiesColin M. GOURLEY, a Minor, By and Through Michael J. GOURLEY, his Father, and Lisa A. Gourley, his Mother, as Next Friends and Natural Guardians, et al., Appellees, v. NEBRASKA METHODIST HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., a corporation, Appellee, and Michelle S. Knolla, M.D., and Obstetricians-Gynecologists, P.C., Doing Business as the OB/GYN Group, Appellants.
CourtNebraska Supreme Court

William M. Lamson, Jr., Raymond E. Walden, and William R. Settles, of Lamson, Dugan & Murray, L.L.P., and John R. Klein, Omaha, for appellants.

Daniel B. Cullan and Paul W. Madgett, of Cullan & Cullan, and John Vail,Omaha, for appellees Colin M. Gourley et al.

James A. Snowden and Andrew B. Koszewski, of Wolfe, Snowden, Hurd, Luers & Ahl, Omaha, for appellee Andrew Robertson, M.D.

Thomas J. Shomaker and Mary M. Schott, of Sodoro, Daly & Sodoro, Omaha, for appellee Nebraska Methodist Health System, Inc.

Charles M. Pallesen, Jr., of Cline, Williams, Wright, Johnson & Oldfather, L.L.P., Lincoln, for amici curiae Nebraska Medical Association and Greater Nebraska Medical Coalition.

William F. Austin, of Erickson & Sederstrom, P.C., Lincoln, for amici curiae Nebraska Association of Hospitals and Health Systems and Cherry County Hospital.

HENDRY, C.J., and WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, GERRARD, and McCORMACK, JJ., and HANNON and CARLSON, Judges.

PER CURIAM.

Neb.Rev.Stat. § 44-2825(1) (Reissue 1998) of the Nebraska Hospital-Medical Liability Act limits recoverable damages in medical malpractice actions to $1,250,000. The district court determined that the damages limitation was unconstitutional because it denied the appellees Colin M. Gourley and his parents, Michael J. Gourley and Lisa A. Gourley, equal protection of the law and a right to a jury trial. The appellants, Michelle S. Knolla, M.D., and Obstetricians-Gynecologists, P.C., doing business as the OB/GYN Group, contend that (1) the district court erred in determining that § 44-2825(1) was unconstitutional, (2) the jury verdict was invalid, and (3) the court erred in admitting hearsay and irrelevant evidence.

I. NATURE OF CASE

The Gourleys brought this medical malpractice action against Nebraska Methodist Health System, Inc., and Nebraska Methodist Hospital (collectively Methodist Hospital); Knolla; Marvin L. Dietrich, M.D.; Andrew Robertson, M.D.; Pauline R. Sleder, M.D.; OB/GYN Group; and Perinatal Associates, P.C. The Gourleys sought damages for injuries sustained by Colin because of the alleged negligent care Lisa received during her pregnancy. A jury awarded the Gourleys $5,625,000, and the district court entered judgment for the Gourleys in that amount and against Knolla and the OB/GYN Group.

II. BACKGROUND

During her pregnancy, Lisa received prenatal care from Knolla, an obstetrician and gynecologist employed with the OB/GYN Group. On November 15, 1993, in the 36th week of her pregnancy, Lisa informed Knolla that she noticed less movement from the twin fetuses she was carrying. Knolla assured Lisa that this was common and that everything appeared to be normal. Two days later, Lisa called the OB/GYN Group to again report a lack of fetal movement and was told to come to the office to meet with Dietrich. Dietrich's examination revealed that one of the fetuses suffered from bradycardia, a decrease in the fetus' heart rate, and a lack of amniotic fluid. Dietrich instructed Lisa to proceed to Methodist Hospital for examination by Robertson, who was employed by Perinatal Associates. During his examination, Robertson determined that an immediate cesarean section should be performed. Shortly thereafter, Colin and his twin brother, Connor, were delivered. Colin was born with brain damage and currently suffers from cerebral palsy and significant physical, cognitive, and behavioral difficulties.

The Gourleys filed suit alleging that Knolla and the OB/GYN Group failed to monitor Lisa and Colin while they were under their care. At the close of the Gourleys' case in chief, Methodist Hospital moved for a directed verdict. The court granted the motion and dismissed Methodist Hospital.

The jury found Knolla and the OB/GYN Group to be 60 percent and 40 percent negligent, respectively. The jury awarded the Gourleys $5,625,000. The Gourleys moved for a new trial, arguing that the court erred in granting a directed verdict to Methodist Hospital. The jury found for Dietrich, Robertson, Sleder, and Perinatal Associates, and the court later dismissed them from the case.

The district court reduced the jury's award and entered judgment for the Gourleys and against Knolla and the OB/GYN Group, jointly and severally, in the amount of $1,250,000. The court found that § 44-2825(1) was constitutional.

The Gourleys filed a second motion for new trial, contending that the cap on damages imposed by § 44-2825 is unconstitutional because it violates their rights to (1) equal protection; (2) a jury trial; (3) an open court and full remedy; (4) substantive due process; and (5) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Gourleys also alleged that the Legislature exceeded its power when imposing the cap and that the cap was unconstitutional special legislation.

Knolla and the OB/GYN Group also moved for a new trial because of 16 alleged errors, among which were that the verdict was not agreed to by five-sixths of the jury as required by Neb.Rev.Stat. § 25-1125 (Reissue 1995) and that the court erred in receiving certain exhibits and testimony into evidence.

The court (1) overruled the Gourleys' motion for new trial on Methodist Hospital's directed verdict and (2) overruled Knolla and the OB/GYN Group's motion for new trial, specifically rejecting their argument that the jury verdict was invalid. Knolla and the OB/GYN Group's other grounds for new trial were also overruled without explanation.

The court reversed its decision and concluded that the cap on damages in § 44-2825(1) violated equal protection under Neb. Const. art. I, § 3. The court also concluded that § 44-2825(1) violated the Gourleys' right to a jury trial under Neb. Const. art. I, § 6. The court found that § 44-2825(1) was severable from the rest of the act. The court vacated its previous order and entered judgment for the Gourleys and against Knolla and the OB/GYN Group, jointly and severally, in the full amount of $5,625,000. Knolla and the OB/GYN Group appeal.

III. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

Knolla and the OB/GYN Group assign that the district court erred in (1) denying their motion for new trial when the jury returned an invalid verdict; (2) admitting unsupported and hearsay evidence in the form of a "Life Care Plan for Colin Gourley" by Terry Winkler, M.D.; (3) admitting a book, "What To Expect When You're Expecting," into evidence which contained hearsay, was itself hearsay, and was likely to confuse the jury; (4) overruling their motion for new trial; (5) declaring unconstitutional the damages cap of the Nebraska Hospital-Medical Liability Act, § 44-2825, and in reversing its order reducing the amount of the judgment to the statutory maximum of $1,250,000; and (6) applying its ruling on the constitutionality of the act retrospectively.

The Gourleys purported to file a cross-appeal, assigning that the court erred in granting Methodist Hospital's motion for directed verdict.

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In proceedings where the Nebraska Evidence Rules apply, the admissibility of evidence is controlled by the Nebraska Evidence Rules; judicial discretion is involved only when the rules make such discretion a factor in determining admissibility. Green Tree Fin. Servicing v. Sutton, 264 Neb. 533, 650 N.W.2d 228 (2002). A judicial abuse of discretion exists when a judge, within the effective limits of authorized judicial power, elects to act or refrains from acting, and the selected option results in a decision which is untenable and unfairly deprives a litigant of a substantial right or a just result in matters submitted for disposition through a judicial system. Gallner v. Hoffman, 264 Neb. 995, 653 N.W.2d 838 (2002).

Statutory interpretation presents a question of law, on which an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the decision made by the court below. Newman v. Thomas, 264 Neb. 801, 652 N.W.2d 565 (2002).

Whether a statute is constitutional is a question of law; accordingly, the Nebraska Supreme Court is obligated to reach a conclusion independent of the decision reached by the court below. Hass v. Neth, 265 Neb. 321, 657 N.W.2d 11 (2003).

V. ANALYSIS
1. Jury Verdict

Knolla and the OB/GYN Group argue that they are entitled to a new trial because the verdict was not agreed to by five-sixths of the jury as required by § 25-1125.

Section 25-1125 provides that "[i]n all trials in civil actions in any court in this state, a verdict shall be rendered if five-sixths or more of the members of the jury concur therein, and such verdict shall have the same force and effect as though agreed to by all members of the jury...." Here, the jury signed and returned two verdict forms. We construe verdict form No. 2 as requiring the jury to determine which defendants were liable and verdict form No. 1 as requiring the jury to decide the amount of damages and how to apportion the defendants' negligence. Although 10 jurors signed both verdict forms, the forms were not signed by the same 10 jurors. This means that a juror who disagreed with the determination of who was liable provided the 10th vote necessary to decide the amount of damages and how to apportion the defendants' negligence. Thus, we must decide if a verdict is valid under § 25-1125 if the same five-sixths of the jury fails to agree on each essential issue embodied in that verdict.

In the absence of anything to the contrary, statutory language is to be given its plain and ordinary meaning; an appellate court will not resort to interpretation to ascertain the meaning of statutory words which...

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