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Georgia Appeals Court Reinstates Mother’s Lawsuit on Behalf of Child With Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a chronic, incurable condition that impairs a person’s motor functions. Most cases of cerebral palsy arise from a brain injury sustained before, during or shortly after a child’s birth. While cerebral palsy is usually not life-threatening, it is a permanent condition that affects the child for his or her entire lifetime.

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently reinstated a lawsuit, Nixon v. Pierce County School District, brought by a mother whose now-five-year-old child developed cerebral palsy. The woman was about 38 weeks pregnant when a school bus rear-ended her sedan. She was immediately taken to a hospital. The next morning, doctors decided to induce labor. There were no complications during birth, and the woman had, up to the point of the car accident, experienced nothing unusual with respect to her pregnancy.

Six months later, however, the woman started to notice developmental problems with her daughter. The child had difficulty controlling the right side of her body. At approximately one year of age, a pediatric neurologist diagnosed the girl with cerebral palsy.

Did the Accident Cause Her Cerebral Palsy?

In 2010, the mother filed suit against the Pierce County School District, which owned and operated the bus that rear-ended her two years earlier. She alleged that negligence on the part of the District’s bus driver caused the accident that resulted in her daughter’s cerebral palsy. In a deposition, the pediatric neurologist who first diagnosed the daughter explained that her cerebral palsy was caused by a stroke that occurred “between 30 weeks gestation and one month of age.” The neurologist said there was a 50% chance the stroke was the result of the car accident, but he added the stroke could have also been caused by a heart defect or mere happenstance.

The trial judge granted the School District summary judgment on the question of whether the daughter sustained an injury as a result of the car accident. The judge identified a fatal problem in that the neurologist could not establish a “causal connection” between the accident and the brain injury. Normally, a plaintiff in a simple negligence case does not need to produce expert testimony to prevail. But when the link between a defendant’s conduct and the alleged injury “cannot be determined from common knowledge and experience,” as is the case when dealing with a condition like cerebral palsy, then an expert must help establish the connection.

In a decision issued this past July, the Court of Appeals agreed that “expert testimony is required” in cases like this. However, the mother here did produce sufficient expert testimony to at least survive summary judgment. Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said that while the neurologist’s testimony alone was not sufficient to defeat summary judgment, combined with other evidence that established (1) the mother’s pregnancy was otherwise “normal and healthy with no complications” before the car accident and (2) the accident occurred “squarely within the time frame” when the daughter’s stroke had to have occurred, there was enough of a case to warrant a jury trial.