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Hospital Wheelchair Accident is Negligence, Not Malpractice

There are stricter rules in Georgia for bringing a medical malpractice lawsuit versus other types of personal injury claims. Not surprisingly, hospitals often try to classify ordinary negligence cases as malpractice in order to make it more difficult for the plaintiff to pursue his or her claim.

Byrom v. Douglas Hospital, Inc.

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently rejected just such an attempt. The plaintiff in this case had gone to a local hospital to undergo tests for a surgical procedure. A nurse transported the plaintiff, who normally walks with a cane, by wheelchair from the exam room to the waiting room.

When the wheelchair would not fit through a particular doorway, the nurse asked the plaintiff if she could walk the rest of the way. The plaintiff said she “believed she could” and moved to get out of the wheelchair. The nurse did not attempt to assist the plaintiff. As the plaintiff stood up her pant leg was caught on the wheelchair’s foot pedal, which was not raised up, and she fell.

The plaintiff sustained a broken leg in the fall and required surgery and several months of rehabilitation. She subsequently sued the hospital, alleging its negligence in “failing to safely transport her” caused her injuries.

While the hospital acknowledged that it failed to maintain “specific written policies, procedures, or training programs” to train their employees on the proper operation of wheelchairs when used to transport patients. Nevertheless, the hospital moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s case, arguing her claim was one for “professional negligence”—i.e., medical malpractice—which under Georgia law requires an “expert affidavit.”

The expert affidavit requirement is designed to prevent frivolous malpractice claims by forcing a doctor in the same specialty as the defendant to identify a “negligent act or omission” that led to the plaintiff’s injury. Expert affidavits are not required in ordinary negligence cases, however. The trial court agreed this was a malpractice case, and since the plaintiff never presented an expert affidavit, it granted summary judgment to the hospital.

But the Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court said this was clearly not a malpractice case, since the transporting of patients via wheelchair did not involve the “exercise of medical judgment.” To the contrary, the Court of Appeals observed, “individuals with no medical training whatsoever often pushes others around in wheelchairs and assist them in exiting the wheelchairs.”

The Court of Appeals also rejected the hospital’s argument that it was entitled to dismissal because the plaintiff “had equal or superior knowledge” of the potential risk of falling when she exited the wheelchair. The “knowledge” standard is applicable in premises liability cases—such as a slip-and-fall at a store—but the Court of Appeals said it did not apply here. The issue here was not whether the hospital failed to properly maintain its premises, but rather whether the hospital was liable for the “active negligence” of one of its employees. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals returned the plaintiff’s case to the lower court for trial.