Georgia Supreme Court Weighs in on Medical Malpractice Case Where Jury Awarded Zero Damages for Pain and Suffering

In April 2018, the Georgia Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in a medical malpractice lawsuit, Evans v. Rockdale Hospital, LLC, after the jury in the original trial determined a defendant was partially at fault for medical malpractice, yet awarded zero damages for the victim’s pain and suffering. The Court of Appeals found this award “clearly inadequate” under the circumstances, especially since the same jury awarded over $1 million in damages for medical expenses. The Supreme Court of Georgia recently weighed on this same case and determined the Court of Appeals overstepped its authority in ordering a new trial.

Rockdale Hospital, LLC. v. Evans

To briefly review the facts of this case, a 60-year-old woman went to the emergency room of the defendant’s hospital, complaining of a severe headache, high blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting. The hospital staff discharged the woman without identifying any specific cause of her symptoms. Later, doctors at another hospital determined the woman had “suffered several strokes as a result of a ruptured brain aneurysm.” Even following multiple surgeries, the woman remains “permanently and totally disabled.”

The woman’s husband filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the defendant, alleging its failure to properly diagnose his wife in the emergency room led to her present condition. The jury found the defendant 51% liable for the victim’s injuries and awarded her damages for past medical expenses. The husband also received an award of $67,555 for the loss of his wife’s consortium.

With respect to the award of zero damages for pain and suffering, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the defendant that the Court of Appeals “erroneously applied a preponderance of the evidence standard” in reviewing the jury’s verdict. That is to say, under Georgia law it is “ordinarily” up to the jury to decide whether and how much to award in damages. In limited circumstances, the trial judge may order a new trial on the question of damages only if the jury’s verdict is “clearly so inadequate or so excessive as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence in the case.”

However, the Court of Appeals is not the trial court. On appellate review, the Supreme Court explained, the question is whether or not the trial court “abused its discretion” in refusing to grant a new trial for the reasons discussed above. The Court of Appeals was not allowed to “substitute its judgment for that of the trial court on the fact-based question of whether the damages awarded were within the range authorized by a preponderance of the evidence.”

The Supreme Court therefore returned the case to the Court of Appeals with instructions to reconsider the plaintiff’s appeal under the correct “abuse of discretion” standard. The Supreme Court made it clear that it was not asked to address the question of whether the verdict was valid, only the proper standard for making that assessment.