The Court of Appeals of Georgia (“Georgia Appellate Court”) held in its opinion filed on April 12, 2018 that the Georgia medical malpractice jury’s zero award for the plaintiff’s noneconomic damages in a case where the jury found the defendant hospital 51% at fault and the plaintiff 49% at fault was so clearly inadequate under a preponderance of the evidence as to shock the conscience and necessitate a new trial under OCGA § 51-12-12 (b).
The Georgia Appellate Court therefore reversed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion for additur or, alternatively, for a new trial on damages, but also held the retrial on remand cannot be limited to the issue of damages and instead must encompass all issues.
The Underlying Facts
On the night of Saturday, January 14, 2012, the 60-year-old plaintiff woke up with the worst headache that she had ever experienced, jumped out of bed, and vomited on herself. She then had episodes of vomiting and diarrhea throughout the night. The plaintiff thought she was suffering from food poisoning and had become dehydrated.
The plaintiff’s symptoms did not subside over the next two days, and around 8:00 p.m. on Monday, January 16, 2012, the plaintiff’s husband drove her to the defendant hospital’s emergency room, where the plaintiff complained of dehydration, headache, diarrhea, and nausea, and she told the nursing staff that she might have food poisoning from a local restaurant. The triage nurse failed to document the plaintiff’s initial complaint of headache in the medical chart and chose the charting template on the computer for digestive system illnesses, which remained the template used by the nursing staff throughout the plaintiff’s stay in the defendant emergency room.
The triage nurse documented the plaintiff’s initial blood pressure as 213/105. All of the blood pressure readings subsequently taken by the emergency room nursing staff reflected that the plaintiff had a continued systolic blood pressure of over 200, which is extremely high and also can be a sign of bleeding in the brain. Additionally, the plaintiff requested medication for a severe throbbing headache, which she described as an 8 out of 10 on the hospital pain scale.
Despite her complaint of a severe headache and high blood pressure, the nursing staff did not ask the plaintiff focused questions about her headache and thus did not learn from her and document in the medical chart that her initial onset of symptoms had involved her waking up with the most severe headache of her life.
The plaintiff was diagnosed with high blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting, with no specific cause identified. The emergency room physician told the plaintiff that he was concerned about her high blood pressure and that she needed to see her primary care physician that week. The plaintiff was discharged from the emergency room in the early morning hours of January 17, 2012, and was instructed to return if her condition worsened.
After the plaintiff was discharged from the defendant hospital’s emergency room, her husband called a local primary care practice and made an appointment for his wife the following Monday, the first available appointment. The plaintiff’s severe headache and vomiting returned after she was discharged from the defendant hospital, and she continued to have those symptoms throughout the week. Additionally, the plaintiff fell several times during the week and she had to crawl back to bed on at least one occasion.
On January 22, 2012, the plaintiff’s husband called 911 after the plaintiff began moving her mouth unnaturally while eating and was unable to get up from the couch.
The plaintiff was transported by ambulance to the defendant hospital’s emergency room, where a CT scan showed a blood clot in her brain. She was transferred to Emory Hospital, and further testing revealed that she had suffered several strokes as a result of a ruptured brain aneurysm. The plaintiff underwent multiple surgeries and spent months in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility. She is permanently and totally disabled, is incontinent, requires a feeding tube, cannot speak, has severe cognitive and other impairments, has a seizure disorder, and requires 24-hour care.
The plaintiff’s husband filed a Georgia medical malpractice lawsuit against the defendant hospital on behalf of his wife and himself. During the jury trial, the parties disputed whether the plaintiff suffered from a ruptured brain aneurysm when she presented at the emergency room on January 16, 2012, whether a diagnosis of a ruptured aneurysm on that date would have led to a better outcome, and whether the defendant hospital’s emergency room nurses violated the standard of care. The defendant hospital also argued that the plaintiff’s fault exceeded that of the defendant hospital because, among other things, she had not obtained treatment for her longstanding, uncontrolled hypertension despite being aware of that condition.
The Georgia medical malpractice jury awarded the plaintiff the amount she had requested in damages for past medical expenses ($1,196,288.97), but awarded her zero damages for future medical expenses, zero damages for past and future lost wages, and zero damages for past and future pain and suffering. The Georgia medical malpractice jury awarded the plaintiff’s husband $67,555 in damages for his loss of consortium claim.
The Georgia medical malpractice jury apportioned fault among the parties, finding that the defendant hospital was 51 percent at fault and the plaintiff was 49 percent at fault. The trial court reduced the amount of damages awarded by the jury in proportion to the percentages of fault and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and against the defendant hospital in the amount of $586,191.60 for past medical expenses and $33,101.95 for loss of consortium.
The plaintiffs filed a motion for additur or for a new trial on the ground that the Georgia medical malpractice jury’s award of damages against the defendant hospital was so clearly inadequate as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence. The plaintiffs contended that any new trial ordered by the trial court should be limited to the issue of damages.
The trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for additur or a new trial on damages, and the plaintiffs appealed.
Georgia Appellate Court Decision
OCGA § 51-12-12 provides, in part: “(a) The question of damages is ordinarily one for the jury; and the court should not interfere with the jury’s verdict unless the damages awarded by the jury are clearly so inadequate or so excessive as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence in the case. (b) If the jury’s award of damages is clearly so inadequate or so excessive as to any party as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence, the trial court may order a new trial as to damages only, as to any or all parties, or may condition the grant of such a new trial upon any party’s refusal to accept an amount determined by the trial court.”
The Georgia Supreme Court has held that appellate courts are empowered to set aside a jury’s damages award under OCGA § 51-12-12, and that an award that is so inadequate or excessive as to shock the conscience is subject to reversal on appeal.
The Georgia Appellate Court noted that the Georgia medical malpractice jury awarded the plaintiff 100% of her past medical expenses; her medical records that were introduced without objection reflected that she underwent multiple surgical procedures and spent months in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility; and, that the undisputed testimony demonstrated that the plaintiff is permanently and completely disabled, cannot speak, is incontinent, requires a feeding tube, has a seizure disorder, has severe cognitive and other impairments, and requires 24-hour care.
The Georgia Appellate Court held that given this record, the Georgia medical malpractice jury’s award of zero damages for the plaintiff’s past pain and suffering, the same time period for which it awarded the plaintiff her past medical expenses, was so clearly inadequate under a preponderance of the evidence as to shock the conscience and necessitate a new trial.
The Georgia Appellate Court further held, “Because the jury’s award of zero damages for [the plaintiff’s] past pain and suffering was so clearly inadequate under a preponderance of the evidence as to shock the conscience, a new trial is necessary, and the trial court abused its discretion in concluding otherwise. However, contrary to [the plaintiff’s] argument, we conclude that the retrial cannot be limited solely to the issue of damages. In cases like the present one involving issues of comparative negligence, the Georgia Supreme Court has held that review of the verdict is available under OCGA § 51-12-12, but if a new trial is ordered, it must encompass all issues and cannot be limited to damages … Because [the plaintiff’s] medical malpractice claim against [the defendant hospital] must be retried on all issues of liability and damages, [the husband’s] derivative claim for loss of consortium also must be retried.”
Source Evans v. Rockdale Hospital, LLC, A18A0233.
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