Is an emergency room supervisor responsible for the malpractice of medical staff under his supervision? The Georgia Supreme Court recently looked at such a case and answered “no.” The justices unanimously reversed a Court of Appeals decision that would have allowed a woman to pursue a professional negligence case against a physician she claimed was partly responsible for her mother’s death.
Herrington v. Gaulden
In October 2008, 64-year-old Deloris Gaulden was admitted to Liberty Regional Medical Center in Hinesville. Gaulden had fainted while attending church and complained of tightness in her chest. Despite these symptoms, emergency department personnel did not perform certain routine procedures–i.e., giving Gaulden aspiring or running an EKG–until about an hour after her admittance. Approximately 90 minutes after her arrival, Gaulden suffered cardiac and respiratory arrest and died.
Gaulden’s daughter, acting as personal representative of her mother’s estate, sued a number of defendants for malpractice, including Dr. Bobby L. Herrington. Dr. Herrington was medical director of Liberty’s emergency medicine department. Although he was not present at the time of Gaulden’s admission, treatment or death, the lawsuit alleged he “breached his specific supervisory duties as Medical Director and was negligent in failing to take adequate steps to ensure that emergency room staff” received proper training to deal with patients presenting with chest pains.
A trial court granted Dr. Herrington’s request for summary judgment. The judge agreed that Dr. Herrington never entered into a physician-patient relationship and thus owed her no duty. Furthermore, any claims regarding his supervision of the department “fell outside the realm of mere ordinary negligence.”
The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment decision. A three-judge panel found there was evidence that Dr. Herrington “assumed an obligation as Medical Director to supervise and monitor the training of emergency room physicians and nursing staff on hospital policies and procedures,” which created a legal duty to patients like Gaulden. Dr. Herrington then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court agreed with the original trial court decision and reversed the Court of Appeals. Justice Keith R. Blackwell, writing for the Supreme Court, said the Court of Appeals incorrectly applied the law to this case. While there are cases, Justice Blackwell noted, where a supervisor may be liable for failure to properly train employees, this was not such a case. Dr. Herrington, Justice Blackwell said, “had no responsibility or authority as medical director to control or direct ‘the manner and method’ of care rendered to Gaulden by her treating physician and nurse.”
According to the Supreme Court, the only way Gaulden’s estate could establish Dr. Herrington’s liability here would be to prove his failure to supervise created a greater hazard than normally existed within the emergency department. And there was no evidence to suggest that was the case here. “At most,” Justice Blackwell observed, “Dr. Herrington might be said to have failed to resolve a misunderstanding of the physicians and staff about the precise requirements of the chest pain protocol, a misunderstanding that no evidence suggests was of his own making.”