Stelts v. Meyers, 265 A.3d 335 (Pa. 2021)

PA Supreme Court reverses Superior Court, holds that trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying motion for mistrial based on single, unanswered question proposed to expert witness.

This medical malpractice case involved allegations of failure to diagnose a complete tear of the plaintiff’s adductor tendon. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged the defendant failed to diagnose and disclose the existence of a tear as reported by a radiologist. 

During the trial, the defendant’s attorney asked one of the plaintiff’s experts whether the expert knew that the plaintiff was not able to find expert support for the radiologist’s diagnosis. The plaintiff objected, and the trial court sustained the objection but denied the plaintiff’s motion for a mistrial. Ultimately, a defense verdict was returned. The plaintiff filed a post-trial motion asserting that the court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial. The trial court agreed and ordered a new trial.

The defendant appealed. The Superior Court affirmed and concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial. 

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the Superior Court and held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in initially deciding to deny a motion for mistrial based on a single, unanswered question proposed to an expert witness. The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court’s initial decision to deny the plaintiff’s motion for a mistrial was correct. And because this was the only basis the trial court specified as grounds for a new trial, the court reversed. “The trial court cannot order a new trial in the absence of a mistake.” Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to grant a new trial. In support of the decision that there was no mistake, the Supreme Court explained that the trial court provided sufficient curative instruction to the jury; there was only a single reference to the plaintiff’s failure to produce another expert; and the question itself was not improper because it was predicated upon facts that were of-record. Therefore, there was no mistake that would have warranted a new trial. 

This case demonstrates that it is important to consider every single question asked of experts during a trial. It is imperative to consider whether a question may be construed as a factual assertion by counsel. However, even if this occurs, counsel must be aware to ensure that such a statement cannot be construed as untrue that could result in a mistake. 

Case Law Alerts, 1st Quarter, April 2022 is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. Copyright © 2022 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, all rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm.