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How “Charitable Immunity” Can Defeat Some Georgia Personal Injury Claims

If you are injured due to a hospital’s negligence, you would assume that you have the right to sue for damages. If the hospital is a charitable institution, however, it may not be that simple. For nearly a century, Georgia courts have recognized a special “charitable immunity” that protects such hospitals from personal injury lawsuits.

Lewis v. Grady Memorial Hospital Corporation, Inc.

The charitable immunity doctrine has a long and sordid history. It first crept up in a case decided in the 1830s by the House of Lords, which used to be the United Kingdom’s highest court. Although the Lords later repudiated their decision, American courts in the late 19th century picked up on the idea of charitable immunity and ran with it.

Georgia’s Supreme Court first applied charitable immunity in a 1918 decision. The basic rule is that a charitable hospital is immune from liability for the negligent acts of its employees, volunteers, and other agents. Immunity does not extend, however, to negligence arising from paid services.

This exception was the subject of a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision. The plaintiff in this case was a patient at Grady Memorial Hospital, the largest public hospital in Atlanta. According to her lawsuit, the plaintiff was sexually assaulted by another patient during her stay at the hospital. She alleges the hospital was negligent because its employees failed to properly monitor the hallways and allowed the assailant to get into her room.

Grady Memorial moved for summary judgment under the charitable immunity rule. The trial court granted the hospital’s motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

Summary judgment was not appropriate, the appeals court said, because it was not clear whether the plaintiff’s case fell under the exception for paid services. The charitable immunity rule is meant to protect a hospital that provides free care to the poor. The plaintiff here was not indigent. She had health insurance through her employer. More to the point, when the plaintiff was admitted to the hospital, she signed an agreement to pay for any services rendered.

In fact, Grady Memorial billed the plaintiff more than $10,000 for the medical services she received. The plaintiff’s attorney actually paid this outstanding balance. Yet the hospital still said it was entitled to charitable immunity because the plaintiff did not “contribute” to the payment herself.

The Court of Appeals said the “paying patient” exception can apply even when a third party makes the actual payment. Again, the point of the charitable immunity rule is to protect public institutions that are forced to absorb the cost of indigent patient care. The evidence in this case suggested that Grady Memorial did not actually extend any charity to the plaintiff. At the very least, the appeals court concluded, the hospital was not entitled to summary judgment.

No Charitable Immunity for Doctors

One more thing to keep in mind when discussing charitable immunity is that the rule only applies to the hospital itself. Individual doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel cannot claim charitable immunity. They are still subject to malpractice and negligence lawsuits under Georgia law.