Orthodox Jew to get new trial after missing court for holiday

Judge in medical malpractice suit did not change court date despite request

February 25, 2011|By Jessica Anderson and Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's highest court ruled Thursday in favor of an Orthodox Jewish plaintiff who missed part of a medical malpractice trial because it was scheduled during a two-day Jewish holiday. He will now be a allowed a retrial in the case.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court "abused its discretion by denying plaintiff's motions to suspend trial for two days," according to the opinion issued this week.

The top court's narrow ruling says that excluding Alexander Neustadter from his own trial was prejudicial. The decision by Montgomery County judges not to change the trial dates to accommodate Neustadter gave his opponent, Holy Cross Hospital, the advantage of presenting its side unchallenged.

Neustadter's attorney, Thomas Mack, said Friday that the Court of Appeals avoided dealing with a broader constitutional issue that he had raised when he argued on behalf of Neustadter last fall. He contended that the Montgomery County Circuit Court judges became more concerned with the government's interest in efficiency, trampling Neustadter's rights of religious freedom in the process.

In the original case, Neustadter had testified that he wanted a breathing tube reinserted in the airway of his ill 91-year-old father and Holocaust survivor Israel Neustadter, but the doctors decided against re-intubating. An expert witness for Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring told jurors that not re-intubating Israel Neustadter met the standard of care because the patient would not benefit.

Neustadter missed the opportunity to challenge the witness because of his observance of Shavuot. He lost the case.

Although Circuit Judge Louise Scrivener agreed that courts must reasonably accommodate religious worship, she said a month's notice about the conflict was too late to alter the tight court schedule, citing a crowded docket, shortage of judges and related concerns.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the verdict, and Neustadter asked the Court of Appeals to hear the case.

Michelle R. Mitchell, the hospital's attorney, argued that Neustadter and his lawyer realized soon after the trial date was chosen that it would conflict with Neustadter's strict religious observance. Although Neustadter's attorney immediately told the defendants' lawyers, the conflict was not broached with Scrivener until about a month before trial, Mitchell said. Efforts to switch the order of witnesses failed.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization that submitted a brief to the court in support of Neustadter, hailed the ruling as an affirmation of the right of an individual to miss court on a religious holiday.

"The court's ruling has affirmed the important principle that freedom of religion mandates that an individual's religious observance be accommodated — in the workplace, in academic institutions, and yes, even in the courtrooms of our country," Agudath Israel attorney Abba Cohen said in a prepared statement.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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