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Jerden v. Amstutz - 430 F.3d 1231 (9th Cir. 2005)

Rule:

Evidentiary errors to warrant reversal must affect the substantial rights of the defendant. However, appellate courts start with a presumption of prejudice. That presumption may be rebutted if the defendant can show that, more likely than not, the jury would have reached the same verdict if the error had not occurred. 

Facts:

In this diversity case, plaintiffs-appellants Mr. Daniel and Ms. Catrina Jerden filed a medical malpractice action in federal district court against defendant-appellee Dr. Paul G. Amstutz after defendant, a neurosurgeon, mistakenly diagnosed Mr. Jerden as having a brain tumor based partly on defendant's interpretation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reports. Defendant conducted invasive and unwarranted brain surgery on Mr. Jerden before the correct diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was made. A jury rendered a verdict for defendant. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by granting a motion to strike the testimony of plaintiffs' expert and instructing the jury that it could not consider his testimony on the issue of negligence. The appellate court agreed, finding that defendant's untimely objection to the foundation for the out-of-town experts' testimony unfairly prevented plaintiffs from providing a curative response. Plaintiffs also asserted error in the admission of testimony by a neurosurgical nurse practitioner. In his testimony, the nurse practitioner did not merely relate his factual observations of what occurred but also included his observations of a magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) report, leading the appellate court to conclude that he rendered opinions and inferences that he was not competent to provide. Ultimately, the appellate court found that the cumulative affect of the errors was prejudicial.

Issue:

Did the evidentiary errors affect plaintiffs' substantial rights?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The judgment of the trial court was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial. This case involved multiple medical experts on both sides testifying as to the proper interpretation of the MRI and MRA reports and whether defendant's mistaken interpretation of the reports as showing a tumor, rather than demyelination, was a breach of his standard of care. The jury was required to decide which side to believe, assessing credibility of witnesses and determining how much weight to give the views of each. The court could not say that "it is more probable than not that the jury would have reached the same verdict" if one expert's testimony had not been limited and if another expert's testimony had been. The court concluded that the errors affected a substantial right of the parties and constituted reversible error warranting a new trial.

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