In its opinion filed on January 19, 2017, the Court of Appeals of Georgia (“Appellate Court”) analyzed whether two emergency room physicians who had treated the plaintiff were agents or employees of the hospital or were independent contractors for whom the hospital would not be liable for their alleged medical negligence that resulted in the plaintiff suffering quadriplegia.
The Alleged Underlying Facts
The plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident in May 2012 and was transported by ambulance to the emergency room of the defendant hospital. An emergency room physician ordered a cervical CT scan and other medical tests. The CT scan was read by another physician who concluded that it showed no cervical fractures and he communicated the results to the original emergency room physician, who instructed a nurse at the hospital to remove the cervical spine collar that had been placed on the plaintiff and to discharge the plaintiff from the hospital.
The heavily medicated plaintiff was placed in a wheelchair and taken to the curb to await her ride. When her brother arrived to pick her up, the plaintiff was slumped over in the wheelchair and was unresponsive. The plaintiff was readmitted to the hospital and she was discovered to have a fractured cervical spine.
The plaintiff’s cervical fracture became displaced because the nurse had removed the cervical spine collar, which caused compression of her spinal cord and neurological damage. As a result of the neurological damage, the plaintiff was rendered a quadriplegic.
The plaintiff filed her Georgia medical malpractice lawsuit in May 2014, alleging that the medical negligence of the original emergency room physician and the medical negligence of the physician who had read her CT scan as showing no cervical fracture caused her catastrophic injury, and that they were employees or agents of the defendant hospital for which the hospital was liable. The defendant hospital filed a motion for summary judgment in which it contended that the two physicians were independent contractors and therefore it was not liable for their acts of medical negligence. The trial court granted the defendant hospital’s motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed.
OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (f)
OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (f) states: “[w]hether a health care professional is an actual agent, an employee, or an independent contractor shall be determined by the language of the contract between the health care professional and the hospital. In the absence of such a contract, or if the contract is unclear or ambiguous, a health care professional shall only be considered the hospital’s employee or actual agent if it can be shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the hospital reserves the right to control the time, manner, or method in which the health care professional performs the services for which licensed, as distinguished from the right to merely require certain definite results.” (italics added)
“Health care professional” is defined by the statute as “a professional licensed as a . . . medical doctor.” OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (a) (1).
The Appellate Court stated that it was undisputed that the two defendant physicians are medical doctors, and therefore the Appellate Court had to determine whether a contract existed between the defendant physician(s) and the defendant hospital. While the defendant physicians had contracts with their respective physician groups, which in turn had contracts with the defendant hospital, OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (f) makes no mention of physician groups or contracts that exist between physician groups and physicians, and the Appellate Court held that these contractual relationships do not fall under OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (f). Therefore, the Appellate Court held that it was error for the trial court to grant summary judgment to the defendant hospital based on the contractual language between the hospital and the physician groups.
Nonetheless, OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (g) states: “[i]f the court finds that there is no contract or that the contract is unclear or ambiguous as to the relationship between the hospital and health care professional, the court shall apply the following.” OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (1) – (2) then lists a variety of factors that a court may and shall not consider when determining whether an agency relationship exists.
The Appellate Court stated that because the trial court only determined there was no agency relationship based on the language in the contracts between the hospital and the physician groups, it did not conduct an analysis under OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (g). Therefore, the Appellate Court vacated the trial court’s finding that no agency relationship existed between the defendant hospital and either or both of the defendant physicians, and remanded the case so that the trial court may make a proper analysis pursuant to OCGA § 51-2-5.1 (g).
Source Thomas v. Tenet Healthsystem GB, Inc. d/b/a Atlanta Medical Center, A16A2160.
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