Georgia Woman’s Estate Awarded Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death

In a recent Georgia appellate case, an 86-year-old woman developed a painful knee infection after receiving an injection at a clinic for her arthritis. A physician’s assistant who injected her knee with medication from a multi-dose vial examined her. The injection did not occur under sterile conditions. She was infected with MSSA (as were four other patients from the clinic).

A physician that was working part-time at the clinic supervised the assistant. The assistant had examined the woman multiple times in the past and realized she had symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, he never advised her to seek treatment for those conditions. Later the woman returned three times, complaining of fevers and chills. She was treated with antibiotics.

At the instruction of a doctor, the physician’s assistant sent her to the hospital. The hospital physicians performed a surgical procedure and prescribed her antibiotics. The treating physicians were worried that the infection was part of an outbreak and contacted an epidemiologist. The epidemiologist’s report noted poor infection and disinfection practices and concluded that the clinic’s lapses threatened public health.
A month after her follow-up, the woman committed suicide. Her suicide note referenced that she couldn’t take the pain in her leg anymore.
Her next of kin and her estate’s administrator claimed that the injection caused both the infection and the suicide. They filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the clinic and a number of doctors.

At trial, an expert on infectious diseases testified that the outbreak of MSSA was extremely rare. He also opined that the lapses at the clinic (like failure to properly wash hands and using multi-dose vials) were the most rudimentary issues of infection control. The defendants stipulated that they were responsible for the knee infection. They also stipulated that the estate was entitled to damages for pain and suffering related to the infection, as well as reimbursement for over $60,000 in medical expenses. They wouldn’t stipulate they were responsible for suicide.

The jury found for the estate with an award of $400,000 in compensatory damages to the next of kin for the infection claim, $500,000 in compensatory damages for the wrongful death claim. Punitive damages were also awarded. The trial court capped the punitive damages award at $250,000 because the jury found the clinic did not have the specific intent to harm.

The defendants moved for a new trial, which was denied. They appealed and argued that the evidence was insufficient to show a failure to supervise was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ damages and that the expert testimony was speculative, among other things. They argued that the punitive damages was not enough to show the corporation had failed to implement hygienic practices.
The appellate court disagreed. It explained that punitive damages can be authorized if there is a want of care and indifference to consequences. Negligence, however is not enough. There has to be culpable conduct or intentional disregard of rights.

In this case, the defendants had stipulated their liability. The infection was not isolated because other patients were similarly infected. There were poor sanitary conditions and the clinic had failed to improve those conditions. However, the jury verdict form didn’t specify whether the jury found the defendants liable for wrongful death because of their failure to diagnose depression or because they caused the knee infection. The defendants had not objected.

The appellate court noted that there was some evidence that showed the decedent’s depression was worsened by her pain and lack of mobility. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the jury’s finding of liability as to the wrongful death claim.

The appellate court also explained that punitive damages are awarded to deter reprehensible conduct. In this case, the trial court had reduced the award of punitive damages from $2.5 million to $250,000. The $2.5 million was about 2.5 times the $900,000 awarded in compensatory damages. The appellate court affirmed this decision as well.

If a loved one is killed due to someone else’s negligence, recklessness or intentionally wrongful conduct, you may have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit. Experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney Terrence R. Bethune can evaluate your case and fight for any compensation you may deserve. Contact us at 404-875-7800 or via our online form.

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