Georgia Legislature Enacts Statute Protecting High-Low Agreements

On April 9, 2019, the Georgia General Assembly sent HB128 to the governor for signing. HB128 modifies the rules regarding insurance company and physician reporting of the “low” amount of a high-low agreement. Now, when the “low” amount is paid, the insurance company does not have to report the payment as a settlement to the Composite Medical Board and the physician does not have to update their profile. This makes Georgia law square up with the National Practitioner Databank Reporting rules and seemingly overturns a 2016 Georgia Attorney General opinion.

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South Carolina Supreme Court Interprets Statute of Repose

The South Carolina Supreme Court interpreted South Carolina’s statute of repose applicable to medical malpractice actions, which requires an action to be commenced within “six years from [the] date of occurrence,” and, in a split decision, found the statute begins to run after each occurrence rather than the first occurrence.

In Marshall v. Dodds, Marshall was treated multiple times by Dr. Dodds over the course of many years, beginning in July 1999 and ending in September 2005.  In July 1999 Marshall presented to Dr. Dodds and Dr. Dodds noted elevated protein levels in Marshall’s urine but failed to run a test that would have shown that the protein was cancerous.  Over the course of Dr. Dodds’ treatment of Marshall, he repeatedly noted the increased protein levels but never ran the test to determine if the protein was cancerous.  The last time Dr. Dodds treated Marshall was in September 2005. In February 2010, Marshall was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer.  In February 2011, Marshall sued Dr. Dodds and another doctor for a failure to diagnose.

Defendants’ argued that the statute of repose began to run in July 1999 when Dr. Dodds first failed to diagnose Marshall with cancer, requiring Marshall to file suit by July 2005.  Because suit was not filed until February 2011, Marshall’s claims were time barred. The South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed.  The Court interpreted the statute, which it noted stated “occurrence” and not “first occurrence,” and determined that each time Dr. Dodds treated Marshall and failed to diagnose her, it was an “occurrence” under the statute.  Because suit was filed in February 2011, Marshall could maintain claims for any occurrences from up to six years prior, February 2005.  The last time Dr. Dodds treated Marshall and failed to diagnose her was in September 2005.  Accordingly, Marshall could maintain an action for those damages occurring within the statute of repose, but not for those occurring outside the statute of repose.

Take-home:  If a practitioner fails to diagnose a patient on multiple occasions, both within and outside of the statute of repose, that patient is not time barred from bringing an action for damages.  The patient, however, can only recover for those damages occurring within the statute of repose.

The case is Marshall v. Dodds, Case No. 27873 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed March 27, 2019).

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion, please click here.

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Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Immunity for Ambulance

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment for an ambulance service based on the emergency responder statute. Plaintiff was the wife of a deceased driver and the mother of a son injured in a car accident. Plaintiff alleged that when the ambulance service responded, they failed to treat her husband, resulting in his death. Plaintiff also alleged that the ambulance service improperly treated her son, resulting in additional injuries.

The ambulance service moved for summary judgment under Section 31-11-8, which grants immunity to ambulance services who provide services in good faith and without remuneration. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that the statute applied even though Plaintiff alleged omissions and that the ambulance service did not receive remuneration.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding there was a fact dispute as to whether the ambulance service received remuneration within the meaning of the statute. The evidence was the ambulance service received compensation for mileage and for “ALS1.” Under the CMS manual for reimbursement, ALS1 is for charges related to emergency services and not an administrative cost like mileage. Accordingly, the ambulance service received remuneration and was not entitled to immunity as a matter of law.

The case is Ortega v. Coffey, 2019 Ga.App. LEXIS 86 (Feb. 26, 2019).

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Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment in Fraudulent Billing Case

The Georgia Court of Appeals has reversed the grant of summary judgment to the defendant in a case alleging billing fraud. Plaintiff sued her podiatrist, claiming the defendant did not perform the procedures for which she was billed. Plaintiff did not file an expert affidavit with the complaint. Defendant moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the motion, holding that the question was one of professional judgment and therefore an affidavit was required.

The Court of Appeals reversed. As an initial matter, the Court pointed out that a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is the proper vehicle to dispose of a complaint in which there is no expert affidavit. Next, the Court held that the question of whether an expert would need to testify about the procedures was separate from the question of whether an expert affidavit is required with the complaint. The latter question turns on whether the claim is one for professional negligence as opposed to fraud. The Court relied on a long line of cases that distinguish claims for intentional conduct from claims for negligence. And the Court reaffirmed the rule that if a claimant alleges intentional conduct in the complaint and does not attach an affidavit, then cannot later change the case into a negligence claim, citing Walker v. Wallis, 289 Ga. App. 676 (2008).

Take-Home:  The lines between what is considered to be ‘simple’ negligence, professional negligence, or intentional acts and when an affidavit is required remain as cloudy as ever.

The case is Williams v. Murrell, 2019 Ga.App. LEXIS  80 (Feb. 22, 2019).

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Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Plaintiffs’ Verdict in Gross Negligence ER Case

In the second appellate version of Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C. v. Quinney, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed a $4.5 million verdict for the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs sued Southwestern Emergency Physicians, a doctor, and the hospital where the care encounter took place. Plaintiffs alleged that the negligence of the physician and two non-party nurses caused Mr. Quinney to become a paraplegic.

On appeal, the main issues were whether the trial court erred in permitting Plaintiffs to argue both gross negligence and the “ordinary” professional malpractice standard of care in light of the previous appellate decision in the case, whether the trial court erred by instructing the jury that the gross negligence standard applied to non-parties for purposes of apportionment, and whether the trial court should have listed the hospital as a separate entity from its employee nurses for purposes of apportionment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, denying each of the grounds asserted.

In the first appellate case, the defense moved for summary judgment on the issue of “ordinary” professional malpractice because the care provided arose solely out of emergency medical care to which the gross negligence standard applies under Section 51-1-29.5. On appeal, the Court held that the gross negligence standard applied because “emergency medical services” had been rendered, but ruled there were fact disputes about whether the doctor was grossly negligent. After remand and finishing discovery, the defense moved to exclude any testimony or argument about anything other than gross negligence. The trial court denied the motion in part because two defense experts had testified since the first appeal that Mr. Quinney was stable and that the jury should hear the evidence and then decide whether to apply the gross negligence standard or the “ordinary” standard of care. The defense then stated that it intended to discuss gross negligence in opening and Plaintiffs argued they should be allowed to discuss ordinary negligence if that was the case. The trial court agreed and gave “careful” preliminary and jury instructions that were “adjusted to the evidence, apt, and a correct statement of the law” regarding gross negligence. In addition, during the charge conference, Plaintiffs withdrew charges related to “ordinary negligence” leaving only gross negligence as the issue. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to preclude any mention to ordinary negligence.

Next, the defense argued that the trial court should not have instructed the gross negligence standard as it applied to apportioning fault to non-parties, such as the individual nurses. After Plaintiffs withdrew the ordinary negligence jury charge in the charge conference, the defense argued for the charge to apply to the non-parties on the theory that apportionment only requires a finding of fault, not liability. The Court held that the duty the non-parties owed to Mr. Quinney was one of “slight care” (gross negligence) and that the defense was required to prove they did not provide such care if the jury was to apportion to them. Notably, the jury did apportion to two non-parties.

Lastly, the defense argued the hospital should have also been listed as a separate party for apportionment. The Court held that because the defense did not offer any evidence that the hospital would be liable independent of its role as employer of the two non-party nurses who were listed on the verdict form, there was no error.

Take-home: this case highlights the complicated nature of trying a case under the “gross negligence” standard and with apportionment. These cases are highly fact specific and it can be challenging to get the right jury charges for all of the scenarios that might be presented.

The case is Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C. v. Quinney, 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 538

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Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Plaintiffs’ Verdict in Gross Negligence ER Case

In the second appellate version of Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C. v. Quinney, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed a $4.5 million verdict for the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs sued Southwestern Emergency Physicians, a doctor, and the hospital where the care encounter took place. Plaintiffs alleged that the negligence of the physician and two non-party nurses caused Mr. Quinney to become a paraplegic.

On appeal, the main issues were whether the trial court erred in permitting Plaintiffs to argue both gross negligence and the “ordinary” professional malpractice standard of care in light of the previous appellate decision in the case, whether the trial court erred by instructing the jury that the gross negligence standard applied to non-parties for purposes of apportionment, and whether the trial court should have listed the hospital as a separate entity from its employee nurses for purposes of apportionment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, denying each of the grounds asserted.

In the first appellate case, the defense moved for summary judgment on the issue of “ordinary” professional malpractice because the care provided arose solely out of emergency medical care to which the gross negligence standard applies under Section 51-1-29.5. On appeal, the Court held that the gross negligence standard applied because “emergency medical services” had been rendered, but ruled there were fact disputes about whether the doctor was grossly negligent. After remand and finishing discovery, the defense moved to exclude any testimony or argument about anything other than gross negligence. The trial court denied the motion in part because two defense experts had testified since the first appeal that Mr. Quinney was stable and that the jury should hear the evidence and then decide whether to apply the gross negligence standard or the “ordinary” standard of care. The defense then stated that it intended to discuss gross negligence in opening and Plaintiffs argued they should be allowed to discuss ordinary negligence if that was the case. The trial court agreed and gave “careful” preliminary and jury instructions that were “adjusted to the evidence, apt, and a correct statement of the law” regarding gross negligence. In addition, during the charge conference, Plaintiffs withdrew charges related to “ordinary negligence” leaving only gross negligence as the issue. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to preclude any mention to ordinary negligence.

Next, the defense argued that the trial court should not have instructed the gross negligence standard as it applied to apportioning fault to non-parties, such as the individual nurses. After Plaintiffs withdrew the ordinary negligence jury charge in the charge conference, the defense argued for the charge to apply to the non-parties on the theory that apportionment only requires a finding of fault, not liability. The Court held that the duty the non-parties owed to Mr. Quinney was one of “slight care” (gross negligence) and that the defense was required to prove they did not provide such care if the jury was to apportion to them. Notably, the jury did apportion to two non-parties.

Lastly, the defense argued the hospital should have also been listed as a separate party for apportionment. The Court held that because the defense did not offer any evidence that the hospital would be liable independent of its role as employer of the two non-party nurses who were listed on the verdict form, there was no error.

Take-home: this case highlights the complicated nature of trying a case under the “gross negligence” standard and with apportionment. These cases are highly fact specific and it can be challenging to get the right jury charges for all of the scenarios that might be presented.

The case is Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C. v. Quinney, 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 538

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Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Defense Verdict Based on Assumption of the Risk

In this convoluted case, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a motion for new trial filed by the plaintiffs after a defense verdict for the defendant cardiologist. Mr. Berryhill was prescribed medication to control his blood pressure at a local clinic. He then went to see the defendant cardiologist, Dr. Daly, who provided him with additional medication. Dr. Daly also performed a cardiac catheterization and placed a stent. Following surgery, Dr. Daly told Mr. Berryhill not to engage in any “strenuous or risky activity, or any lifting, bending, or stooping over.” Mrs. Berryhill was present. Five days later, Mr. Berryhill went hunting with a friend. He was in a deer stand about 18 feet off the ground when he fainted and fell, suffering serious injuries.

The Berryhills sued the cardiologist, a pharmacy, and the manufacturer of the deer stand. Against the cardiologist, plaintiffs alleged Dr. Daly prescribed too much blood pressure medication, which caused him to faint. The pharmacy and manufacturer were dismissed before trial. Dr. Daly’s motions in limine included a motion to exclude the testimony of an expert pharmacist and to have the claims against the manufacturer admitted into evidence as admissions. The Court instructed the jury on assumption of the risk and avoidance of the consequences.

Dr. Daly won and plaintiffs moved for a new trial including as grounds that the charge on assumption of the risk was not appropriate. The trial court denied the motion and the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court of Appeals held that a jury instruction for assumption of the risk is authorized only when the plaintiff assumes a known risk arising from a defendant’s conduct or failure to act. In so holding, the Court wrote “[t]he knowledge requirement does not refer to a plaintiff’s comprehension of general, non-specific risks that might associated . . . but rather is based in part on the reasoning that the plaintiff, in advance, has given his consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct towards him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.” The Court went on to write “[h]ere, climbing in to a deer stand was not a risk associated with Dr. Daly’s duty to Berryhill” and “it would be incorrect to identify this risk . . as justifying the instruction.” However, it was the risk of syncope (fainting) as a side effect that was the “particular risk in question.”  While the evidence showed Dr. Daly advised Mr. Berryhill not to engage in strenuous activity, the evidence did not establish that Mr. Berryhill knew he risked losing consciousness if he chose not to comply. Accordingly, the trial court should not have charged on assumption of the risk. The Court then concluded that the error may have been harmful because it could have led the jury into believing that any risk Mr. Berryhill assumed would support a finding of no liability.

The take-home is not that Dr. Daly had a duty to inform Mr. Berryhill of the specific risks of fainting or syncope. Rather, the Court only ruled that the jury charge should not have been given. The Court did not discuss whether a more narrowly tailored charge would have been appropriate.

The case is Berryhill v. Daly, 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 526.

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Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment on Causation

The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to a defendant hospital. In Edokpolor v. Grady Memorial, the plaintiff claimed her husband died after aspirating Golytely. The doctor’s orders were to administer the medication through a nasogastric tube. The nurse, however, administered it orally.

In support of the complaint, the plaintiff filed an expert affidavit. The expert testified that the nurses were obligated to follow the doctor’s orders and that the administration of the medication by mouth caused aspiration and caused his death. The hospital moved for summary judgment, pointing out there was no evidence the patient aspirated during administration of the Golytely orally, that the patient may have aspirated after ingesting the medication by vomiting, and that administering the medication through a nasogastric tube does not eliminate the possibility of aspiration. Plaintiff did not submit any opposing evidence. The trial court granted the motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the affiant’s bare and conclusory allegations about causation did not create a genuine issue of material fact.

The case is Edokpolor v. Grady Memorial, 2018 Ga.LEXIS 507.

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Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Exclusion of Hidden Affidavit

The Georgia Court of Appeals has affirmed exclusion of an affidavit of a key witness in a medical malpractice case. Plaintiff worked for a physician office. She suffered a back injury and was referred to the defendant anesthesiologist for pain management. During the second injection by the Defendant, Plaintiff contends she complained of pain shooting down her leg and additional problems.

The issue at trial was when the Defendant learned about the new complaints. The anesthesiologist testified that she did not learn about the complaints for several days until it was too late to do anything. Plaintiff testified that she told Defendant about her complaints much earlier.

During discovery, Defendant sent interrogatories regarding witnesses generally, witnesses who had expressed opinions about Defendant’s care, and requesting documents. Plaintiff’s interrogatory responses identified her employer generally, but not as someone who would opine about Defendant’s care specifically. Later, Plaintiff’s employer executed an affidavit in which he testified he had a phone call with Defendant very early on about the new complaints. Plaintiff did not disclose the affidavit to Defendant in discovery.

At trial, Plaintiff’s employer did not recall his alleged conversation with Defendant. Plaintiff’s counsel then sought to use the affidavit to refresh his memory and to admit it into evidence. Defendant objected because the affidavit had not been disclosed, which Plaintiff admitted, but contended it was work product. The trial court excluded the use of the affidavit.

Plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed, but the Georgia Supreme Court vacated the case and remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for further consideration in light of the 2017 decision of Resurgens, P.C. v. Elliott. The Court of Appeals held the trial court did not abuse its discretion, ruling that Plaintiff’s interrogatory responses required supplementation regarding the employer’s testimony. When Plaintiff did not supplement the discovery after obtaining the affidavit, the initial interrogatory response became misleading, thereby justifying the sanction.

Take-home message: there is tension between Section 9-11-26(e)(2)(B), which does not require supplementation when the response was “complete when made” unless the respondent later learns the original response is no longer true, and Section 9-11-37, which requires supplementation of prior responses that are incomplete, ambiguous, or no longer complete accurate.

The case is Anglin v. Smith, 2018 Ga.App. LEXIS 405 (June 21, 2018).

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Georgia Court of Appeals Holds that Doctor’s Interest in Outcome is Fair Game on Cross-Exam

The Georgia Court of Appeals has held that a doctor’s lien is fertile ground for cross-examination. In the case of Stephens v. Castano-Castano, the plaintiff sued for injuries arising out of a motor vehicle accident. The evidence showed that her attorney referred her to a treating physician who, in turn, treated her under the terms of a lien based on her recovery. Attempts at presuit settlement ultimately resulted in no settlement (and part of the decision deals with offers and acceptance), so a lawsuit was filed.

At trial, the defense sought to cross-examine the treating physician on the fact the attorney referred the plaintiff to him and his lien. Plaintiff moved to exclude the evidence, which was granted.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial court should have permitted the defense to cross-examine the doctor based on the financial interest. The Court wrote:

“Dr. Chappius’ financial interest in the outcome of the case is highly relevant to the issue of his credibility and potential bias, as Dr. Chappuis has become an investor of sorts in the lawsuit. If Castano receives a large verdict amount, then Dr. Chappuis has a near certain chance of fully and quickly recovering the costs of the treatment provided to Castano at no initial cost. On the other hand, if Castano does not recover at trial, Dr. Chappuis’ chances of being fully reimbursed are more doubtful. Thus, the expert witness has a financial motivation to testify favorably for Castano, and the probative value of this testimony outweighs its prejudicial effect.”

The Court rejected the notion that the attorney’s referral was fair game, however. In so ruling, the Court wrote that “[a]t most, there is a suggestion of unseemliness which creates a danger of unfair prejudice and confusion of the issues before the jury.”

The case is Stephens v. Castano-Castano, 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 307.

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