October 30, 2018
By Nathan Murawsky
Simply put on any legal television drama and you will inevitably see the courtroom scene where the judge presides over the case and the jury renders a verdict. However, the role each plays in dispensing justice in reality is unique, and was recently clarified by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in a case handled by our office; Nicolaou v. Martin.
The basic precept of our judicial system is that the Judge provides the law and the jury is the finder of fact. The jury is bound to apply the law as the Judge gives them, and cannot disobey the law or use its own interpretation in rendering a decision. In turn, the Judge also is bound to those facts as found by the jury, and must allow the jury to determine what is the truth based on the evidence. However, this distinction often leads to legal conflicts.
In Nicolaou, an issue was presented to the court not about the ultimate claims of medical malpractice, but whether the plaintiff had timely filed her lawsuit. Important to that legal issue were questions of fact – what did Ms. Nicolaou know and when did she know it, and thereafter, what actions did she take? Twisted within those questions were issues of Ms. Nicolaou’s financial ability to obtain medical testing as well as what the defendant doctor had said to her during treatment. The facts provided by both sides to the trial court judge disputed what was factually accurate.
The trial court judge dismissed the action stating that based upon the evidence “reasonable” people could not disagree as to the factual outcome, essentially stating that the facts were so free and clear of doubt that a jury’s review wasn’t necessary. The trial court can, only when facts are so free and clear of doubt, render a legal decision and throw aside allegations of fact the court finds baseless. This process, though, is reserved only for those cases where the Judge finds that no one could disagree with the court’s factual findings. After the trial court’s decision, the matter was appealed, and the Superior Court agreed with the trial court judge finding in part that Ms. Nicolaou’s failure to obtain medical testing she asserted she could not afford wasn’t reasonable conduct. The Supreme Court, though, justly reversed the two lower court opinions.
The Supreme Court held that genuine issues of fact existed, and when questions of fact arise, it must be a jury that addresses and determines issues of fact. The critical component to this opinion is that the Supreme Court specifically noted that one’s financial resources or ability to obtain medical treatment is relevant and important and cannot be pushed aside by a Judge. Moreover, the Supreme Court reminded the lower courts that what is unreasonable to one person can be totally reasonable to another and that in those situations, it is wholly improper for the court to supplant the role of the jury. The decision of the Supreme Court expressly stated that those without financial or educational means cannot be discriminated against by the courts – and indirectly, that a Judge cannot view what is reasonable only through his or her own eyes, but must look to a person in those similar circumstances. In sum, the opinion was a reminder to Judges throughout our Commonwealth that reasonable conduct cannot be only defined through the lens of privilege and wealth, but must be left to the jury to look to each person’s own particular circumstances when making determinations of fact.
We at HRMM&L are proud to represent Ms. Nicolaou and appreciative that our Supreme Court ultimately concluded that facts matter – and that those facts aren’t for one person to decide but must be left to our peers to address and deliberate on all the evidence, and only then can the truth be determined.