Mark Armacost v. Reginald J. Davis
Case No. 69, September Term, 2017
Opinion by J. McDonald
In January 2012, Mark Armacost (“Armacost”) developed an infection after undergoing a spinal surgery performed by Dr. Reginald Davis (“Dr. Davis”). This infection caused Armacost pain and ultimately required him to undergo a period of hospitalization in April 2012. Two years later, Armacost filed suit against Dr. Davis alleging, among other things, that Dr. Davis violated the standard of care expected of a reasonably competent health care provider. After three days of testimony, the trial court instructed the jury on the laws governing its decision, including Armacost’s claims of medical malpractice. When giving these instructions, the trial court first provided the jury with instructions on the general law of negligence, which states that the jury should measure the defendant’s conduct against that of a reasonable person in similar circumstances. The court then instructed the jury that the particular standard of care applicable in this case is that of a reasonably competent health care provider.
The jury then deliberated for three days. At the end of the first two days, jurors sent notes asserting that they were “undecided” and whether they could end deliberations. On the third day, the jurors sent notes expressing concerns about child care and asking what would happen if they were unable to reach a decision. In response, the trial court proposed to inform the jury that it would only need to deliberate for an additional hour and to give the jury a “modified Allen charge” encouraging it to work to reach a resolution. Counsel for Dr. Davis objected to these propositions and proposed that the jury should be allowed to deliberate to the end of the day, and that if it did not return a verdict by then, Dr. Davis’ counsel would move for a mistrial. The trial court dismissed counsel’s objection and provided the jury with both instructions. As the trial court was about to excuse the jury, it returned to the courtroom and entered a verdict in favor of Armacost on the count of negligence.
On appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals was asked to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion when: (1) instructing the jury on the standard of care for both general negligence and medical malpractice; and (2) providing a “modified Allen charge” along with an instruction that the jury would only need to deliberate for an hour. On the first issue, counsel for Dr. Davis argued that the trial court abused its discretion because providing two instructions on the relevant standard of care may confuse the jury on how it is expected to assess Dr. Davis’ conduct. On the second issue, counsel for Dr. Davis argued that giving the modified Allen charge immediately before telling the jury that it had a one-hour deadline to deliberate was “unduly coercive.”
The Maryland Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when giving either instruction. The Court reasoned that giving both negligence instructions is not wrong as a matter of law, nor misleading, when a trial court makes it clear that the claim of general negligence involves an objective standard that requires a jury to measure a defendant’s conduct against that of a reasonable person in similar circumstances, and that the objective standard in the case before the jury requires it to compare the conduct of Dr. Davis to that of a reasonable health care provider. In this case, the Court found that the provided jury instructions, when viewed in the context of the trial, were not misleading and were not likely to prejudice Dr. Davis.
Regarding the modified Allen charge, the Court reasoned that giving the modified Allen charge itself was not an abuse of discretion because, although it urged the jurors to render a verdict, the content of the instruction did not favor either party and the trial court explicitly told the jurors “not [to] surrender your honest conviction as to the weight or effect of evidence solely because of the opinion of your fellow jurors or for the mere purpose of returning a verdict.” When considering whether it was an abuse of discretion to provide the modified Allen charge along with an indication that the jury would only need to deliberate for an hour, the Court reasoned that, in context, the instructions were not unduly coercive because they occurred after several events suggesting that the jury wanted information regarding its schedule. However, the Court expressed that instructions informing juries of how long they must deliberate must be considered in the context of their respective trials.
-Horton McCormick, Associate Attorney