In its written opinion dated July 15, 2013, the Court of Appeals of Georgia (“Georgia Court of Appeals”) affirmed a Georgia medical malpractice jury’s verdict in the amount of $400,000 in compensatory damages for a knee infection claim, $500,000 in compensatory damages for a wrongful death claim, and $2.5 million in punitive damages (reduced to $250,000 under Georgia law) as a result of an acquired knee infection and subsequent death of an 86-year-old Korean woman who committed suicide by jumping from the window of her 14th floor apartment on March 9, 2009, leaving behind a suicide note written in Korean that stated, “pain in leg . . . I can’t take it no more . . . better to die . . . I’m sorry.”
The woman’s ordeal began on January 15, 2009, when she went to a Georgia medical clinic for treatment involving her arthritic knee. A physician’s assistant injected her left knee with medication drawn from a multi-dose vial. Because the injection was not administered properly under sterile conditions, the woman was infected with methicillin-sensitive staphylococcus aureus (“MSSA”). Four other patients of the clinic were also infected with MSSA from the same multi-dose vial over a five-day period.
Notably, the same physician’s assistant had examined the woman at the same Georgia clinic several times in the past and had noted symptoms of depression and anxiety, but he never prescribed her medication or referred her to seek treatment for her depression and anxiety.
The woman returned to the clinic three times, complaining of fevers, chills, and redness in her left knee for which she was prescribed antibiotics. After her third visit, she was sent to a hospital where it was diagnosed that she had a septic knee caused by MSSA, which required surgery.
A report by one of the woman’s hospital physicians who was concerned about a possible MSSA outbreak resulted in an investigation by the CDC and Georgia health authorities that found “abundant evidence of poor infection control practices . . . and inadequate environmental cleaning and disinfection practices” including “1) re-use of multi-dose medication in an uncontrolled environment; 2) inadequate hand hygiene. . . and 3) inappropriate cleaning and disinfection agents contributing to inadequate care of medical equipment,” concluding that infection control lapses at the clinic constituted “a serious threat to public health.”
The plaintiffs thereafter filed their medical malpractice and wrongful death claims, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. The medical malpractice defendants stipulated at trial that their “negligence and breaches in the standard of care in giving [the woman] a knee injection on January 15, 2009[,] directly and proximately caused [her] to suffer a knee infection” and that the woman’s estate was “entitled to recover damages for hospital and medical bills, and for conscious pain and suffering relating to the knee infection.” The defendants further stipulated that the woman had incurred $60,684.37 in medical expenses relating to the knee infection but they denied that the woman’s knee infection contributed to her suicide.
In reviewing the jury’s verdict, the Georgia Court of Appeals held as follows (in part): “The [ ] evidence demonstrating that the clinic had a pattern of maintaining poor sanitary conditions and that it failed to improve such conditions when presented with suggestions on how to do so is sufficient for the jury to have found, under the clear and convincing standard, that defendants’ negligence exhibited an entire want of care and a conscious indifference to consequences”; “[t]here was evidence presented at trial that [the woman’s] suicide was a result of the pain, suffering and reduced mobility she experienced as a result of her knee infection” and “that [the woman’s] depression was worsened by the pain and lack of mobility caused by her knee infection, and that this led to [the woman’s] suicide”; “there was some evidence to support the jury’s finding of liability as to the plaintiffs’ wrongful death claim based upon the defendants’ stipulated negligence;” and, “[i]n the present case, the trial court reduced the jury’s award of punitive damages from a combined $2.5 million to $250,000 because the jury found that none of the defendants exhibited an intent to harm [the woman]. See OCGA § 51-12-5.1. The $2.5 million punitive damage award rendered by the jury was approximately 2.5 times the $900,000 awarded in compensatory damages. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for new trial or j.n.o.v. on this ground because there is no evidence that the award of punitive damages was ‘infected by undue passion and prejudice'”.
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