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Blackwell v. Dass

November 4, 2010

QUITA B. BLACKWELL, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
KRISHNA N. DASS, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (05-CA-9773) (Hon. Joan Zeldon, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kramer, Associate Judge

Argued September 15, 2010

Before KRAMER, Associate Judge, NEWMAN and BELSON, Senior Judges.

On June 2nd, 2009, a jury determined that Dr. Krishna Dass was not liable for the death of Ms. Roylestine Bowman, Quita Blackwell's mother. The trial court subsequently denied Ms. Blackwell's motion for a mistrial. On appeal, appellant contends the trial court erred in its decision, asserting she was entitled to a mistrial because (1) the jury disregarded the court's instructions, (2) the court impermissibly revised the verdict sheet after deliberations had begun, and (3) the verdict was a result of coercion to end deliberations quickly. For the reasons below, we affirm.

I. Factual Background

Appellants Ms. Blackwell and Ms. Riddick, as representatives and beneficiaries of the estate of Ms. Roylestine Bowman, their mother, brought wrongful death and survival claims against appellee Dr. Dass. They alleged that Dr. Dass's medical negligence caused the death of their mother. After a three week trial, during which both parties and the court noted the attentiveness and engagement of the jury, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Dr. Dass.

This appeal stems from events that occurred during deliberations. Prior to deliberations, the parties had agreed to submit a sequential step-wise verdict form to the jury. The verdict form separated the elements of a medical malpractice claim*fn1 into distinct, individual questions. Question one, addressing breach of the standard of care, asked: "Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that Krishna Dass, M.D., breached the applicable standard of care in his care and treatment of Roylestine Bowman?" Question two, addressing causation, asked, "Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that a breach in the standard of care by Krishna Dass, M.D. was a proximate cause of Roylestine Bowman's death?"

Deliberations began in the late afternoon on a Friday and continued the following Monday. Deliberations resumed Tuesday. At 10:35 a.m., the jurors submitted two notes to the court.*fn2 The first note read: "Juror # 600 will not be here tomorrow due to a graduation. Juror # 648 will not be here on Thursday due to a graduation."*fn3 The second note read: "Your Honor, After much deliberation, we cannot agree on [question] # 1 unanimously. May we move on to question # 2? Please Advise."

The court then conferenced with the parties' attorneys. Regarding the first note, the court informed the parties that it could not allow jurors to excuse themselves and that it would explain that diplomatically to the jurors. Neither side objected. Nor did any attorney for either side make any request for the court to consider any other approach to the note from jurors 600 and 648. The court called the jury out and informed them, "You can't simply inform the court you are not going to be here. You are a deliberating jury and you will be here until the jury stops deliberating. That is the process. . . . You have to stick with the case until it is over, one way or another."

The parties' counsel and the court discussed the jury's second note that it was unable to come to a decision regarding question one and asking permission to move on to question two. After stating, "I have to tell them no," the trial court expressed to the parties that it believed giving the Winters*fn4 anti-deadlock instruction to the jury would be premature, but said it would consider the matter if the parties were so inclined. After further discussion, Dr. Dass's counsel stated he thought it was an appropriate time to give the Winters instruction and Ms. Blackwell's counsel stated that they were "fine" with the instruction and lodged no objection.*fn5

The court then called in the jury and, specifically addressing its note, answered that the jury could not address question two if it had not yet answered question one of the verdict sheet. The court elaborated, "If Dr. Dass did not breach the applicable standard of care in his care and treatment of Mrs. Bowman, you can't go any further. That's it. It says so right on the sheet. . . . [I]f you can't unanimously agree, then you don't have a verdict of yes. That's just the way that works." The court then gave the Winters instruction and the jury resumed deliberations.

At 1:59 p.m., the jury sent another note, this one reading:

Can the verdict sheet be rephrased consistent with the instructions on page 22 ([I]nstruction 9-3)*fn6 that require Plaintiff prove by preponderance of the evidence both (1) Breach of standard of care and (2) that such breach is the proximate cause of injury/death.

Suggested rephrase[d] question: Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) Krishna Dass, M.D., breached the applicable standard of care in his treatment of Roylestine Bowman, and (2) a breach of the standard of care by Krishna ...


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