Court of Appeals of Georgia Affirms Dismissal of Medical Malpractice Case

In light of the poor health of many who enter medical facilities, death is not an uncommon occurrence. Although many of these deaths can be attributed to factors beyond the control of any physician, some can be traced to the negligent conduct of practitioners, leaving doctors and the loved ones of those deceased to wrangle in court. To the chagrin of many of these bereaved plaintiffs, however, the standard for demonstrating negligence liability in medical malpractice actions associated with wrongful death in Georgia is quite different from the burden in a typical negligence suit. In its recent decision in Reeves v. Mahathre, the Georgia Court of Appeals illuminated how some of these differences function in practice and gave further guidance to future litigants on the evidentiary burden they face when asserting a medical malpractice claim.
This case arose from the death of an elderly patient with a history of hypertension and diabetes, who came into the emergency room at Dorminy Medical Center complaining of nausea and abdominal pain. The attending physician, one of the defendants in this case, took a medical history and performed a physical examination of the patient. After these preliminary undertakings, the physician ordered a series of tests, which included a complete blood count, blood-chemistry analysis, urinalysis, and an upright kidney-ureter-bladder x-ray. Although the patient’s white blood cell count was elevated, indicating possible infection, the other tests came back normal, and the physician prescribed the patient pain medication with instructions to see her primary care physician in two days. The following morning, the patient went to her primary care physician and was later that afternoon admitted as an inpatient to Dorminy Medical with increased abdominal pain, fever, and an elevated white-blood-cell count. Shortly thereafter, a CT scan was performed, which showed that the patient was suffering from a kidney stone. Dorminy Medical did not have an available urologist on call but consulted with one at Tift Regional Medical Center. The urologist said Tift Regional did not have any available beds, but the decision was made to transfer the patient promptly the following morning. The following morning the patient was transferred to Tift Regional, which is approximately 30 miles from Dorminy Medical, but by the time she arrived, she was in critical condition and could not undergo anesthesia necessary for surgery. The patient never stabilized and died later that afternoon as a result of urosepsis.
Following the death, the estate of the deceased brought a wrongful death suit against, among others, the attending physician and his employer, Ben Hill Emergency Group, LLC. The estate alleged the physician was negligent in the care he provided. Specifically, they argued that the attending physician was negligent in failing to order a CT scan or formally diagnose the deceased’s condition prior to discharging her from the emergency room during the initial visit. The physician moved for summary judgment, arguing that he did not breach the applicable standard of care and, even if he did, the plaintiff had failed to establish a causal connection between his care and the patient’s death. The trial court concurred and granted the motion.

The Court of Appeals first reviewed the standard for establishing medical malpractice in Georgia. In a medical malpractice action, a plaintiff must prove three elements: “(1) the duty inherent in the doctor-patient relationship; (2) the breach of that duty by failing to exercise the requisite degree of skill and care; and (3) that this failure [was] the proximate cause of the injury sustained.” Accordingly, when the injury sustained is death, the plaintiff must prove that death was proximately caused by the breach in care. The court further noted that causation must be proven within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, and that when the facts to support causation fall beyond the understanding of a typical juror, the evidence of causation must be established through expert testimony.
Although the court assumed the physician breached his duty of care, it nonetheless found that the plaintiffs had not proffered sufficient evidence for purposes of proving causation. In particular, the court noted the testimony of an expert physician enlisted by the plaintiffs, who stated that the deceased did not present signs of infection that would suggest a need for a CT scan until her second visit. In addition, the court observed the testimony of the urologist at Tift Regional, who stated that even if a CT scan had been performed he would have only recommended the administration of pain medication and waited to see if the kidney stone would pass naturally. Although one expert physician for the plaintiffs stated that the collective failures of the practitioners involved caused the patient’s urosepsis and death, the court found that this generalized testimony was insufficient to create a question of material fact sufficient to overcome summary judgment. Accordingly, the trial court properly granted the motion for summary judgment.
This decision stands as a reminder to litigants about the importance of gathering sufficient evidence for every element of a claim and the need to be aware of the evidentiary niceties associated with particular types of lawsuits. Accordingly, if you or someone you know may have been harmed in a possible case of medical malpractice, it is imperative to get guidance from an attorney familiar with all facets of medical malpractice litigation. The medical malpractice attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have considerable experience with representing plaintiffs in Atlanta medical malpractice cases, and are prepared to offer you the advice you need. If you would like a free consultation, click here or call 1-800-487-8669.

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