Why do people kill themselves? Does self-destruction ever make sense? And who can say what caused a specific person — Lance Dowell, say — to hang himself after hospital doctors negligently failed to urge him to stay for psychological treatment?
If you think a jury ought to hear all the evidence and render a verdict about responsibility for Mr. Dowell’s irrational choice, you would have excellent company.
Article I, section 15 of the Texas Constitution provides that "[t]he right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate" and that "[t]he Legislature shall pass such laws as may be needed to regulate the same, and to maintain its purity and efficiency." The United States Constitution similarly requires that, "[i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."
But a majority of the Texas Supreme Court begs to differ with you. Last Friday, five of the Justices ruled, in Providence Health Care Center v. Dowell, No. 05-0386 (Tex. May 23, 2008), that the jury never should have found a causal connection between the doctors’ negligence and Mr. Dowell’s suicide.
Never mind that the trial judge considered the evidence sufficient to go to the jury. Or that the court of appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agreed.
Or that Mr. Dowell’s parents showed that the hospital’s negligent failure to diagnose his condition and advise hospitalization led to his hanging. As the dissent noted:
The Dowells presented evidence that a reasonable person similarly situated would have consented to hospitalization. The evidence presented indicated that suicidal patients generally consent to hospitalization when it is properly advised. All three of the Dowells’ experts testified that, in their experience, all or nearly all of their patients agree to hospitalization when the consequences of not doing so are explained. In sum, the Dowells presented evidence that a reasonable person in Lance’s position would have agreed to hospitalization, and there is no legal support for requiring more.
A court cannot follow the constitutional command to treat the right to trial by jury as "inviolate" and to "maintain its purity" by reweighing the evidence and holding that the jurors got it wrong. Inviolate means inviolate. Pure means pure.
Blawgletter fears that this court, in its enthusiasm to overturn jury verdicts it disagrees with, cultivates the view that Texas juries render only advisory opinions about the facts. And that the court will undo findings that 12 citizens have deliberately made whenever five or more officeholders conclude that they would have found the facts differently if they had they sat in the jury box.
Nor can we fathom the court’s seeming disrespect for litigants. It waited a full three years (from May 17, 2005) before acting on the hospital’s petition for review. It did not hear oral argument.
We would humbly remind Their Honors, on this Memorial Day weekend, of the words of Abraham Lincoln:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.