Woman's dental malpractice verdict is reinstated.
Janis Cliff sued two dentists, arguing that their negligent care caused her substantial injury as a result of an infection. After a five day trial, a jury rendered a very "modest" verdict in her favor ag ainst one of the dentists, Michael E. Heath. Heath's insurer immediately appealed, arguing that the small verdict against him was a result of juror prejudice incited by Cliff's attorney. Based on an incomplete transcript and without adequate explanation, the visiting trial judge initally granted Heath's motion to set aside the verdict, however, on reconsideration, the regular Oakland County Circuit Judge reversed that decision. With the benefit of the full transcript and a thorough analysis of the "harmless error" standard, the judge held that the dentist had received a fair verdict that should not be reversed. On appeal, the Court of Appeals unanimously agreed. It noted that taken in context, the plaintiff's attorneys were not inflammatory, were responsive to arguments raised by the defense attorneys, and were properly covered by jury instructions and rulings from the judge. Further, they clearly did not cause the jury to act out of passion to render an inflammatory result, and the defense attorneys never requested a curative instruction. As such, any errors in the trial constituted so-called "harmless error" that did not "materially affect the substantial rights" of the parties.
The Court also ruled that there was no merit in the insurance attorneys' argument that the Court erred by giving the "thin skull plaintiff" instruction. That instruction holds that a negligent actor remains responsible for the damage that he causes, even if the victim was more susceptible to harm than the average person. Since the Defendants and their experts testified at great length about the victim's pre-existing medical history, cross-examined her at length about her history, and offered the suggestion that they "could not rule out" the impact of the prior history, they had rendered the contested instruction appropriate in this case.
Lastly, the Court turned down the request made by the one winning dentist for sanctions. Both courts noted that the two dentists and the dental clinic were represented by the same insurer and attorney, meaning that the victim was the primary "prevailing party." It would blunt the intent and the operation of the case evaluation sanction rule to award sanctions to both the victim and the one dental partner who was not named in the final verdict.