We trust doctors and other healthcare providers with our lives. Unfortunately, that trust is not always rewarded. Medical errors and negligence frequently lead to catastrophic outcomes, including paralysis and death. When this happens, victims and their families have a legal right to seek compensation from the negligent providers.
Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C. v. Quinney
On September 28, 2018, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict in a particularly egregious medical malpractice case. The plaintiff required spinal-cord surgery to relive his chronic back pain, a symptom of his diabetic neuropathy. Although the surgery initially appeared successful, five days later the plaintiff “awoke with severe pain” and he “was having difficulty standing,” according to court records. He was then taken to a local hospital in Albany (not the one that performed the initial surgery).
An emergency room doctor at the Albany hospital examined the plaintiff. To make a long story short, the plaintiff had a spinal hematoma, a collection of blood that was compressing his spinal cord and causing him pain. The emergency room doctor–one of the defendants in this case–never asked for a neurosurgery consult or conducted additional testing to confirm the existence of the hematoma. Instead, the defendant prescribed pain medication and ordered the plaintiff transferred back to the original hospital that performed his surgery. The transfer order was not carried out for more than three hours. By the time the plaintiff arrived at the original hospital, it was too late. The plaintiff sustained permanent spinal cord damage that rendered him “irreversibly paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair bound for the remainder of his life.”
The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant doctor, his practice group, his hospital, and two nurses for malpractice. A jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him $4.5 million in damages. The jury further apportioned 34% liability for the verdict directly to the doctor.
On appeal, the doctor sought to overturn the verdict on a number of grounds, all of which the Court of Appeals rejected. One issue related to the plaintiff’s questioning of an expert witness at trial. Before trial, the plaintiff agreed to a defense motion not to introduce any evidence “of other lawsuits or malpractice claims” against the defendant and his practice group. While cross-examining a defense expert, however, the plaintiff’s attorney asked the witness if he had worked with defense counsel before on other cases involving the defendant. The defense did not immediately object to this questioning. At a “much later” point in the trial, according to the Court of Appeals, the defense moved for a mistrial, alleging that the plaintiff’s counsel violated the earlier motion regarding prior lawsuits involving the defendant. The trial judge denied this motion, and the Court of Appeals agreed this was not grounds for a mistrial.
Another issue raised by the defense was the plaintiff making “reference” to the ordinary-negligence standard applicable in most Georgia malpractice cases. In cases involving emergency doctors, Georgia law applies a “gross negligence” standard. Indeed, before the trial in this case, the Court of Appeals held in a separate decision the plaintiff’s claims fell under the gross-negligence standard. The defendant said the plaintiff’s attorney tried to confuse and mislead the jury by referring to ordinary negligence during opening arguments. The Court of Appeals refused to reach that conclusion, however, noting the trial judge properly instructed the jury on gross negligence and “remarks by counsel do not amount to evidence.”