One feature any evidence must have to be considered by a court or jury is relevance to an issue in the case. The idea is that judges and jurors shouldn’t let prejudicial information sway their thinking. If a defendant, for example, has several convictions for other charges, the jury won’t be told that unless the prosecution can come up with a legitimate reason to bring it up, and simple propensity isn’t enough. A recent case from Oregon, Bergstrom v. Assoc. for Women’s Health of So. Ore., 283 Or App 601 (2017), <http://www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/docs/A158700.pdf>, shows the principle of relevance in action.
Ms. Bergstrom’s baby was oversized, but her obstetrician failed to diagnose this prior to delivery, and failed to recommend a C-section. As a result, the baby’s shoulders caught on her pelvic bone, and he suffered shoulder and arm injuries. Ms. Bergstrom sued the obstetrician, the obstetrician’s clinic, and the hospital for malpractice on the baby’s behalf, alleging, in part, that they knew or should have known that the baby would be oversized and at risk of a difficult delivery.
At the trial, witnesses for both sides, including the obstetrician, agreed that ultrasound was a good means of estimating the baby’s size. Ms. Bergstrom called an expert witness to testify that the obstetrician used poor quality ultrasounds of the baby. As a result, he estimated the baby to be substantially smaller than it was, and this was effectively negligent. The defendants objected, and the trial judge did not allow the expert to testify because he thought the complaint did not sufficiently allege inadequate ultrasounds. The jury ruled for the defendants, and Ms. Bergstrom appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s ruling. It noted that in Oregon, relevance meant having any tendency to prove or disprove a material issue. Based on this standard, it pointed out that the phrase “knew or should have known” was very broad, and that failure to obtain proper tests fit well within the range of the allegation. Based on this reasoning, the court ruled that the expert should have been allowed to testify.
That was only part of the ruling. If an appellate court decides that an error by the trial judge wouldn’t have affected the result, the lower ruling stands on the grounds that the error was harmless. In Ms. Bergstrom’s case, the Court of Appeals ruled that the expert’s testimony could easily have affected the jury’s reasoning, as it significantly strengthened the case for a finding of negligence. The case was sent back for a new trial.
When clients discuss cases with their lawyers, sometimes they think one bit of evidence is important. Your lawyer needs to determine if the evidence is relevant, if is admissible and if it will promote the outcome you desire. It is in your interest to fully discuss these issues and reach an understanding of all the options.