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O'Dneal v. Baptist Memorial Hospital-Tipton

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

February 6, 2018


          Session November 14, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Tipton County No. 6692 Joe H. Walker, III, Judge.

         Plaintiff parents of infant who died in child birth appeal a jury verdict in favor of the medical provider defendants. During voir dire, the trial court denied Plaintiffs' request for additional peremptory challenges under Tennessee Code Annotated section 22-3-104(b) on the basis that Plaintiffs were bringing their claim on behalf of the decedent infant. Based upon the Tennessee Supreme Court's decision in Beard v. Branson, 528 S.W.3d 487 (Tenn. 2017), we conclude that the trial court erred in treating Plaintiffs as a single "party plaintiff" and that Plaintiffs were entitled to eight peremptory challenges under the statute at issue. We also hold that under Tuggle v. Allright Parking Sys., Inc., 922 S.W.2d 107 (Tenn. 1996), the trial court's error resulted in prejudice to the judicial process that necessitates a new trial. All other issues are pretermitted. Reversed and remanded.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Remanded

          W. Bryan Smith, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Christopher O'DNeal, and Cassani Turner.

          James L. Kirby and Tabitha F. McNabb, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Baptist Memorial Hospital-Tipton.

          James T. McColgan and Sherry S. Fernandez, Cordova, Tennessee, and Sybil V. Newton, Birmingham, Alabama, for the appellees, Thomas J. Caruthers, Jr., M.D., and Premier Women's Care, Inc.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.




         Plaintiffs/Appellants Christopher O'Dneal ("Father") and Cassani Turner ("Mother, " and together with Father, "Plaintiffs") are the parents of an infant who died in child birth in February 2009 at Defendant/Appellee Baptist Memorial Hospital-Tipton ("the Hospital"). On April 6, 2010, Mother, individually and as administrator of the child's estate, and Father, individually and as the child's next of kin, filed a complaint against the Hospital, the treating physician Thomas Caruthers, Jr., M.D., and Premier Women's Care, Inc. ("Premier Women's Care" and together with the Hospital and Dr. Caruthers, "Defendants"). The complaint alleged negligence and vicarious liability for the wrongful death of their child. Eventually, Plaintiffs were permitted to file an amended complaint to raise claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Defendants in turn filed separate answers, denying that they committed negligence or that their negligence was the proximate cause of the infant's death. Dr. Caruthers and Premier Women's Care also asserted that neither Mother nor Father had individual claims apart from the wrongful death action and that the individual claims of both parents should be dismissed.[1]

         Prior to trial, Defendants also filed a motion in limine to exclude a "home video" taken of the child's birth. The trial court granted the motion to exclude the video by order of November 30, 2015, finding that the prejudicial effect of the evidence substantially outweighed its probative value.

         Trial began on May 10, 2016, and lasted six days. During voir dire, Plaintiffs requested eight peremptory challenges pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 22-3-104(b), arguing that eight challenges were required because there were two "party plaintiffs." The trial court denied the request, finding that "it's really the estate's lawsuit" and granted Plaintiffs four peremptory challenges, with two additional challenges for alternates. Defendants were given eight challenges without objection. Plaintiffs utilized all of their peremptory challenges during voir dire and indicated on a form contained in the record that they had no remaining challenges. Also during voir dire, Plaintiffs lodged a challenge to the exclusion of a juror by the Hospital on the basis of race. The trial court determined that Plaintiffs had set forth a prima facie challenge under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). The Hospital then stated that the exclusion of the juror was on the basis of her possible bias in favor of Dr. Caruthers and an alleged derogatory name used by the potential juror for one of the Hospital's doctors. The trial court thereafter allowed the juror to be excluded.

         During trial, much of the testimony concerned whether the child's death was due to negligence or a pre-existing condition with a multitude of experts testifying for each side. At the close of proof, the trial court granted a directed verdict as to Plaintiffs' negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, generally finding that the claim had been abandoned. Thereafter, the jury returned a verdict finding that Dr. Caruthers and the Hospital were guilty of medical negligence but that the child's death was not caused by Defendants' negligence. The trial court entered judgment on the jury verdict on May 18, 2016. Plaintiffs later filed a motion for new trial, which was denied by order on August 8, 2016. This appeal followed.

         Issues Presented

         Plaintiffs raise three issues in this case, which are taken and slightly restated from their brief:

1. Whether the trial court erred in limiting Plaintiffs to less than eight peremptory challenges?
2. Whether the trial court erred in denying Plaintiffs' challenge to the striking of an African-American juror.
3. Whether the trial court erred in excluding the video of the delivery of the infant at trial.


         We begin with Plaintiffs' first issue: that the trial court erred in determining that they were entitled to less than eight peremptory challenges under Tennessee Code Annotated section 22-3-104 in this wrongful death action.[2] "The right to challenge peremptorily is the right to exclude the prospective juror without assigning any reason for the challenge. Peremptory challenges are allowed by the Legislature as an act of grace and can be exercised as a matter of right only to the extent allowed by statute." Tuggle v. Allright Parking Sys., Inc., 922 S.W.2d 105, 107 (Tenn. 1996). In deciding this issue, we are called upon to interpret various statutes. As explained by our supreme court:

When determining the meaning of statutes, our primary goal "is to carry out legislative intent without broadening or restricting the statute beyond its intended scope." Johnson v. Hopkins, 432 S.W.3d 840, 848 (Tenn. 2013) (quoting Lind v. Beaman Dodge, Inc., 356 S.W.3d 889, 895 (Tenn. 2011)). We presume that every word in a statute [or rule] has meaning and purpose and that each word's meaning should be given full effect as long as doing so does not frustrate the [drafter's] obvious intention. Id. Words "'must be given their natural and ordinary meaning in the context in which they appear and in light of the statute's general purpose.'" Id. (quoting Mills v. Fulmarque, Inc., 360 S.W.3d 362, 368 (Tenn. 2012)). When a statute's meaning is clear, we "'apply the plain meaning without complicating the task' and enforce the statute as written." Id. (quoting Lind, 356 S.W.3d at 895).

Ellithorpe v. Weismark, 479 S.W.3d 818, 827 (Tenn. 2015). Issues of statutory construction are reviewed by this Court de novo with no presumption of correctness. McFarland v. Pemberton, 530 S.W.3d 76, 91 (Tenn. 2017) (quoting Martin v. Powers, 505 S.W.3d 512, 518 (Tenn. 2016)).

         As such, we begin with the language of the statute at issue. See McFarland, 530 S.W.3d at 91 (quoting Martin, 505 S.W.3d at 518) ("[W]e begin with the actual words of the statute . . . ...

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