Illinois Appellate Court Agrees With Trial Judge that No Contributory Negligence Jury Instruction in Suicide Case – Graham, etc. v. Northwestern Memorial Hospital

747910_self_portrait_2 1.jpgJury instructions are invaluable in helping jurors make decisions that are in accordance with the law. It is through jury instructions that jurors are able to understand what questions they need to answer and how. Yet when a jury is given incorrect jury instructions it can bias its opinion and result in an unfair outcome.
In the medical malpractice lawsuit of Karen Graham, etc. v. Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 2012 IL App (1st) 102609, an Illinois appellate court found that the Cook County jury was given an incorrect jury instruction. The court also found that the improper jury instruction might have influenced the jury’s verdict. As a result, a new medical malpractice trial was ordered, this time with only the correct jury instructions being delivered to the jury.

The case facts in Graham involve the suicide of a 49 year-old woman who had been admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Upon admission to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Marilee Graham was heard expressing regret that she had not died. Another note in her chart stated that she was “falling apart mentally and emotionally” and was still in “severe emotional pain.”


Graham had been involuntarily admitted to the hospital and was placed in restraints to avoid any further suicide attempts. However, those restraints were removed soon thereafter; the new plan was that the hospital staff would check in on Graham every 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this prevention plan was not rigorous enough and Graham was found unresponsive in her hospital room after hanging herself.

Following Graham’s death, her family sued Northwestern Memorial Hospital and one of the physicians who had treated Graham on the claim that they had chosen not to prevent Graham from taking her own life. The physician settled with the family for $462,500 prior to the Cook County trial. The hospital did not settle with Graham’s family and the wrongful death case against the hospital continued to trial.

The trial was meant to off-set the pre-trial settlement with the doctor. Therefore, in order for the estate to recover any damages from the Cook County wrongful death trial, the jury needed to return a verdict higher than the $462,500 settlement. And while the jury did return a $490,196 verdict, it was reduced to $250,000 based on the jury’s finding of Graham’s contributory negligence to be 49%. Therefore, the hospital was no longer required to pay any damages to the family for Graham’s suicide and death.
Following the jury trial, the family requested a new trial on the basis that the jury was given improper jury instructions. At the jury trial, the Cook County Circuit Court judge instructed the jury on contributory negligence, saying that if they found Graham more than 50% negligent for her own death, the hospital would not be liable for damages. It was based on this instruction that the jury found Graham to be 49% responsible, thereby reducing the final verdict to $250,000.

The trial judge agreed with the family and granted its motion for a new trial. However, the hospital then appealed this decision to the appellate court. The court applied the precedent set in Hobart v. Shin, 705 N.E. 2d 907 (Ill. Sup. Ct.), which stated that contributory negligence does not apply to people who kill themselves when they are “completely devoid of reason.” It then follows that if a determination could be made that Graham was “completely devoid of reason” at the time of her death, then she could not be found contributorily negligent.

The appellate court examined the trial evidence and found that since Graham “could no longer act as a reasonable person to exercise ordinary care over her own welfare” that she could also be deemed to be void of reason. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial judge’s order for a new medical malpractice trial which excluded the contributory negligence jury instruction.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois medical negligence lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Schaumburg, Elmhurst, Oak Lawn, Tinley Park, Chicago’s Calumet Heights, and Orland Park.

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