On June 18, 2021, Governor Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 255 into law. The law contains two significant changes to the legal procedures in medical malpractice actions in North Carolina.
Section 1(a) of the law provides an addition to Rule 51 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, “Instructions to jury.” Pursuant to subsection (d), judges in medical malpractice actions shall reduce the oral instructions given to the jury to writing. Judges are also encouraged, but are not required, to provide the jury with a written copy of the oral instructions to take into the jury room for deliberation. This section became effective Oct. 1, 2021, and applies to all actions filed on or after that date.
Section 1(b) amends N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 7A-47.3, which governs the rotation of judges. New subsection (e) states: “The senior resident superior court judge, in consultation with the parties to the case, shall designate a specific resident judge or a specific judge assigned to hold court in the district to preside over all proceedings in a [medical malpractice action].” Unlike Section 1(a), this provision applies to all medical malpractice actions pending as of its effective date, Oct. 1, 2021, in addition to future actions.
The intent behind these new provisions is straightforward. Medical malpractice actions are incredibly fact-intensive and legally complex. They require complicated expert testimony from medical professionals regarding the applicable standard of care, and whether that standard of care was met. Giving juries written instructions should assist them in making the challenging decisions involved.
Further, assigning a specific judge to preside over all of the proceedings should streamline the action. The judge will be able to learn about the parties, the facts, and the standards from the beginning. Rulings should be more efficient and consistent throughout the litigation. By the time the case goes to trial, the judge should have a much better understanding of the issues.
At the current time, many counties are handling the assignment of judges differently. For example, in some counties, the senior resident superior court judge is unilaterally making the judge assignment. In others, the Court is requesting the parties agree, or, alternatively, submit their first two or three choices from whom the senior resident superior court judge can then make the assignment. Our health care law attorneys are continuing to familiarize themselves with the preferences of the various counties as this new statute is put into practice. If they can provide guidance on the process or in regard to a particular matter, please contact our health care law team.