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Georgia Supreme Court Reverses $22 Million Negligence Award, Orders New Trial

Georgia law draws a sharp distinction between ordinary negligence and medical malpractice. The former does not necessarily require an expert’s opinion to prove liability, but the latter does. Specifically, the Georgia Supreme Court has said that medical malpractice victims must present evidence from at least one expert witness in order to “overcome the presumption that the [defendant] acted with due care and establish the [defendant]’s negligence.”

Southeastern Pain Specialists, PC v. Brown

Even in cases of egregious medical malpractice in which you would think common sense would tell you there was negligence, Georgia courts still demand expert testimony. To drive this point home, the Georgia Supreme Court recently threw out a $22 million verdict against an Atlanta doctor and his clinic. The justices felt the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury on the differences between ordinary and medical negligence.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. The doctor is an an “anesthesiologist and pain management specialist.” He treated the victim for back pain at his clinic 10 years ago. During a surgical procedure to help alleviate the pain, the victim’s blood oxygen saturation level dropped suddenly. According to witness testimony, the doctor refused to turn up the victim’s oxygen or seek assistance. Eventually, the victim’s blood oxygen level registered at zero, indicating there was no oxygen getting to the victim’s brain.

The doctor still refused to treat the victim’s condition as critical, maintaining the instruments were giving a false reading. The victim’s blood oxygen level remained dangerously low even after the doctor finished the procedure. Nearly two hours later, when the victim failed to wake up, she was taken to a nearby hospital. The doctor failed to notify emergency room personnel of the victim’s true condition, simply telling them she was “coming out of the anesthesia slowly.”

In reality, the victim suffered a “catastrophic brain injury” due to oxygen deprivation. She remained alive as a “cognitively impaired” quadriplegic for six years, before passing away in 2014. The victim’s widower and her estate subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several defendants, including the doctor, his clinic, and its nursing director.

The jury held that all of the defendants (except the nursing director) was liable and awarded damages of approximately $22 million. At trial the judge instructed the jury as to the legal standards for both ordinary negligence and medical malpractice. During closing arguments the plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer pointed to the fact the victim had stopped breathing during the procedure, as well as the doctor’s misleading statements to the emergency room personnel, as proof of ordinary negligence.

But according to the Supreme Court, this was not a case of ordinary negligence. Since the underlying negligent act–the doctor’s failure to take appropriate action after medical instruments indicated the victim was no longer receiving oxygen to her brain–required the exercise of “medical judgment,” the Supreme Court said the jury could not hold the defendants responsible without the assistance of expert testimony. Because it was impossible to tell which theory of negligence the jury relied upon in reaching its verdict, the defendants were entitled to a new trial.