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Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Plaintiffs’ Verdict in Gross Negligence ER Case – Health Law and Regulation Update Blog Post by Eric Frisch

October 1, 2018

Health Law and Regulation Update Blog Post by Eric Frisch.

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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