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Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Defense Verdict Based on Assumption of the Risk – Health Law and Regulation Update Blog Post by Eric Frisch

September 28, 2018

Recent Health Law and Regulation Update Blog Post by Eric Frisch

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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