Supreme Judicial Court Rules Medical Records, By Themselves, Do Not Prove Assault and Battery Causing "Serious Bodily Injury"

In a potentially wide-ranging decision captioned Commonwealth v. Scott, 464 Mass. 355 (2013), the Supreme Judicial Court recently reversed a defendant’s conviction for assault and battery causing serious bodily injury because the Commonwealth failed to sustain its burden of proof.  More specifically, the Commonwealth relied solely upon hospital records that indicated the alleged victim suffered a lacerated liver due to an assault by the defendant, but the Commonwealth did not introduce any medical testimony that would allow the jury to rationally find that this lacerated liver constituted a “serious bodily injury” as defined by the applicable statute.  The crime of assault and battery causing serious bodily injury is governed by M.G.L. c. 265, §13A, which defines “serious bodily injury” as “bodily injury that results in a permanent disfigurement, loss or impairment of a bodily function, limb, or organ, or a substantial risk of death”.  

In Scott, the defendant was accused of repeatedly assaulting the alleged victim over a period of approximately 12 hours.  According to hospital medical records submitted by the Commonwealth at trial, the alleged victim suffered a lacerated liver as a result of this purported assault.  Significantly, the Commonwealth did not introduce any trial testimony from a medical expert that further explained the nature and extent of the alleged victim’s lacerated liver.  Nevertheless, the Commonwealth argued, at trial, that this lacerated liver constituted a “serious bodily injury”.  The jury agreed with the Commonwealth, and found the defendant guilty of assault and battery causing serious bodily injury (among other counts).  
The defendant subsequently appealed his conviction for assault and battery causing serious bodily injury, on the grounds that the hospital records submitted into evidence by the Commonwealth do not, without more, support a verdict that he caused the alleged victim to suffer a “serious bodily injury”.  

During the course of its analysis, the Supreme Judicial Court first noted that, given the statutory definition of “serious bodily injury” found at M.G.L. c. 265, §13A (as quoted above), the Commonwealth could prove “serious bodily injury” by presenting evidence that the bodily injury resulted in either (1) a permanent disfigurement, (2) a loss or impairment of a bodily function, limb, or organ, or (3) a substantial risk of death.  Next, the Court noted that, at trial in Scott, the Commonwealth argued the lacerated liver constituted an impairment of an organ.

The Court then held that, within the context of M.G.L. c. 265, §13A, “impairment” of an organ “occurs when damage to the structure of the organ is significant enough to compromise its ability to perform its function in the victim’s body”.  Finally, the Court ruled that, although the hospital records did indicate the alleged victim suffered a lacerated liver, the hospital records were not sufficient to prove that this laceration constituted an “impairment” of the liver.  More specifically, the Court held that a juror could not rationally find, in the absence of medical testimony, that the victim’s lacerated liver constituted an “impairment” of the liver.  Stated differently, the hospital records, standing alone, did not establish that the laceration was “significant enough to compromise [the liver’s] ability to perform its function”.

In closing, the Court stated: “While medical testimony may not be required in every instance to establish that a victim has suffered serious injury resulting in impairment to an organ, the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing the severity of an injury through its impact on the structure of the victim’s organ and its consequent effect on the ability of the organ to perform its usual function.  Medical records containing technical terminology that require jurors to speculate on the meaning of key terms will be insufficient, without more, to meet this burden.”