In an interesting recent opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the current version of Illinois Pattern Jury Instruction 105.01 does not accurately state the law on institutional negligence.
Studt v. Sherman Health, Docket No. 108182 is the case. Because, let's face it, the general public doesn't really want to read about cases involving jury instructions (and if you've ever been "lucky" enough to be selected for jury duty, I'm sure you found them nearly as difficult to stay awake for an incomprehensible as we lawyers generally do!), I'll attempt to make this decision a bit simpler to understand, as well as address its impact on the "average" person whom it will affect.
The Studt case involved a medical malpractice case where the hospital emergency room doctors allegedly failed to diagnose appendicitis. Key in any medical negligence case is always what instructions should be issued to the jury on what standards to apply and how to weigh evidence. In that case, the court issued an instruction that, the defendant argued on appeal, was improper. Essentially, the defense argued this particular instruction shouldn't have been given and helped the plaintiff win unfairly. Think of it as lowering a basket a foot in basketball to help the shorter team win.
So, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed the dichotomy between "institutional negligence" and "professional negligence." Think of professional negligence as what a doctor did not do right or should have done but did not. Think of institutional negligence as more of a collective thing. The important "take away" from all this is that the Court thought that in professional negligence cases (doctors are professionals; hence "professional negligence"), the jury should only hear expert testimony to determine the standard of care. Instead of the jury being told that it could put the hospital rules, regulations, and standards on the same level as expert testimony, the Court ruled that the only evidence of the proper standard of care should come from expert testimony. While the rules and regulations are key for many other reasons, they are not something specifically referred to in that version of the Illinois Pattern Jury Instruction 105.01 (amended in 2006).
In short, the instruction that was issued by the Illinois Supreme Court that was used in the Studt case, was found to be incorrect by the Supreme Court. Got that? Yeah, it's a bit confusing.
What's the big deal? Why should the nonlawyer care?
It means that in EVERY case that goes to trial, jury instructions are very important, framing what evidence is heard by the jury, how it is weighed, and, as in this case, defining exactly what the standard of care the defendant(s) should have adhered to, in fact, was at the time of the occurrence. It means that only a true trial attorney, familiar with all these nuanced and ever-evolving instructions, can try your case properly.
This is just another example of just how difficult and complex a seemingly simple case can be for all but the most experienced lawyers. It also shows that important changes in the law often occur that are unnoticed by the public at large.