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Can a Jury Award Damages for Medical Expenses but Nothing for “Pain and Suffering”?

The right to a jury trial is a basic tenet of our legal system. Jurors are entrusted to carefully consider all of the evidence and return a verdict in accordance with the law. Of course, there are times when a jury’s verdict is so inconsistent with the facts that a judge or appellate court must intervene in order to protect the interests of the plaintiff alleging a personal injury.

Evans v. Rockdale Hospital, LLC

For instance, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently ordered a new trial in a medical malpractice case because the jury contradicted itself. It found the defendant liable for a serious act of medical malpractice, yet awarded the plaintiff zero damages for her pain and suffering. The appeals court said such a verdict “shocks the conscience” and necessitated a full retrial of the case before a new jury.

Here is briefly what happened. The plaintiff is the husband and legal guardian of the victim, a woman in her 60s. One morning in 2012, the victim awoke complaining of diarrhea and “the worst headache she had ever experienced.” When her symptoms did not improve over the next two days, the plaintiff drove his wife to the hospital, the defendant in this case.

An emergency room nurse drew the victim’s blood, which confirmed she had “extremely high” blood pressure. Despite this, and the victim’s continuing complaints of severe headaches, the hospital staff failed to ask appropriate follow-up questions or properly document her symptoms in her medical charts.

To make a long story short, the emergency room staff discharged the victim without identifying the underlying cause of her symptoms. As it turned out, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. The victim sustained a number of strokes and required multiple surgeries in the following months. Unfortunately, she is now “permanently and totally disabled,” according to court records, and requires 24-hour care.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged that the hospital’s negligence in failing to diagnose his wife’s ruptured brain aneurysm when she first went to the emergency room led to her present condition. The hospital denied liability, arguing that an earlier diagnosis would not have changed the outcome. The defense further tried to shift the blame to the victim, alleging that she “she had not obtained treatment for her longstanding, uncontrolled hypertension despite being aware of that condition.”

The jury apparently tried to split the difference. It held that the plaintiff was entitled to damages of about $1.2 million for the victim’s past medical expenses. But the jury then apportioned 49% of the fault for what happened to the victim, and said the plaintiff was entitled to nothing for his wife’s future medical expenses and “zero damages for past and future pain and suffering.”

The Court of Appeals said this was “clearly inadequate.” It was illogical to hold the defendant liable for 100% of the victim’s medical expenses but then declare she was entitled to nothing for her pain and suffering. Even if the plaintiff had some comparative fault, the proper course of action would be to calculate her damages and then reduce them accordingly. Since comparative fault was an issue here, the Court of Appeals said it was necessary to retry the entire case, including the first jury’s apportionment of liability.