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Jury Instruction on Insurance, Constitutionality of Pre-Judgment Interest

In the context of a medical malpractice case, the Supreme Court has held that it was not error for the trial court sua sponte to instruct the jury not to consider what affect insurance may have on the case or whether the case will affect the defendants' insurance premiums.  Similarly, the trial justice instructed the jury not to speculate about the parties' attorney's fees including who was paying them or how big they may be.  The Court said the instruction "simply addressed the reality that jurors often wonder about liability coverage, especially in instances where there is typically an insured risk, such as medical malpractice."

The Court also upheld the constitutionality of Rhode Island's statute that provides for twelve percent pre-judgment interest on civil verdicts.  R.I.G.L. 9-21-10(b).  One defendant argued that the statute infringes on his constitutional right to a jury trial because it discourages defendants from trying cases.  The defendant said the statute violates the due process clauses of the United States and Rhode Island constitutions.  The Court noted initially that defendant got his jury trial which was inconsistent with his argument. 

In any event, the Court said pre-judgment interest statutes do not implicate a fundamental right and are not subject to strict scrutiny analysis.  Rather, they are akin to economic legislation and are reviewed for a rational basis.  The dual purpose of such statutes is "to encourage early settlement of claims and to compensate an injured plaintiff for the delay in receiving compensation."  The Court said the statute was rationally related to those purposes.

Of greater concern, in some apparent dictum, the Court seemed to cast doubt on the right to a jury trial.  In footnote 19, the Court said:  "Although our state constitution provides that '[t]he right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate,' we do not liken this mandate to a fundamental right.  See R.I. Const. art. 1, sec. 15."  The Court did not explain what kind of right the trial to trial by jury may be if not a "fundamental" one or what it otherwise thought the constitutional provision might mean.  Moreover, this footnote would seem to be inconsistent with centuries of Rhode Island jurisprudence preserving the right to a jury trial in both civil and criminal cases where the right existed at the time the state constitution was adopted.  See, e.g., FUD's Inc. v. State, 727 A.2d 692 (R.I. 1999); Bishop v. Tripp, 15 R.I. 466, 8 A. 692 (1887).  

Oden v. Schwartz, No. 2011-167, 2013 WL 2109929 (R.I. May 16, 2013).  http://www.sfandllaw.com/Practice-Areas/Personal-Injury-Defense.shtml

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