The Court of Appeals of Georgia (“Georgia Appellate Court”) held in its opinion filed on March 30, 2020, “we vacate our original opinion, and applying the abuse-of-discretion standard of review set forth in Evans II, we affirm the trial court’s order to the extent that it denied the plaintiffs’ challenge to the adequacy of the damages award under OCGA § 51-12-12. As to the separate question of whether the verdict should be set aside as void because it was inconsistent, we vacate the trial court’s order to the extent that it denied the plaintiffs’ challenge to the consistency of the damages award and remand the case to the trial court to determine that question in the first instance under the proper framework.”
The Underlying Facts
During the Georgia medical malpractice trial, the parties disputed whether the plaintiff suffered from a ruptured brain aneurysm when she presented at the emergency room, whether a diagnosis of a ruptured aneurysm on that date would have led to a better outcome, and whether the 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 she had not obtained treatment for her longstanding, uncontrolled hypertension despite being aware of that condition.
The Georgia medical malpractice jury returned its verdict on a special verdict form, awarding the plaintiff her past medical expenses 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 jury awarded the plaintiff’s husband $67,555 in damages for loss of consortium. In apportioning fault, the jury found that the defendant hospital was 51 percent at fault and that 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.
The plaintiff appealed and the Georgia Appellate Court originally reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered a retrial of the entire case, concluding that 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 and necessitate a new trial under OCGA § 51-12-12 (b). The Georgia Appellate Court further concluded at that time that because the plaintiff’s medical malpractice claim must be retried on all issues of liability and damages, the plaintiff’s husband’s derivative claim for loss of consortium also must be retried.
The Supreme Court of Georgia granted certiorari and determined that the Georgia Appellate Court applied the wrong standard in reviewing the trial court’s decision under OCGA § 51-12-12 because the Georgia Appellate Court was not authorized to determine whether the damages that were awarded were so inadequate as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence. As the Georgia Supreme Court explained, OCGA § 51-12-12 sets out a standard for a trial court to apply when reviewing jury damages awards and thus authorizes only that court to determine whether the damages awarded were clearly so inadequate or excessive as to be inconsistent with a preponderance of the evidence. In contrast, appellate courts are limited to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion in deciding a claim under OCGA § 51-12-12.
The Georgia Supreme Court pointed to three instances where an appellate court can determine that the trial court abused its discretion in reviewing a verdict under OCGA § 51-12-12: (1) where the trial court failed to exercise its discretion in reviewing the award; (2) where the trial court’s exercise of its discretion was infected by a significant legal error or a clear error as to a material factual finding; or (3) where the verdict was so excessive or inadequate as to be irrational and thus the apparent result of jury bias, prejudice, or corruption.
Hence, in the case presently before the Georgia Appellate Court, the Georgia Appellate Court stated, “Guided by the standard of review articulated in Evans II, we conclude that the trial court acted within its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ motion under OCGA § 51-12-12. First, it is clear from the trial court’s order that the court exercised its discretion in reviewing the verdict, and the plaintiffs do not argue otherwise. Second, the trial court’s exercise of its discretion was not “infected by a significant legal error or a clear error as to a material factual finding. Evans II, 306 Ga. at 851 (2) (b). The plaintiffs do not point to any errors of material fact made by the trial court, and thus the sole issue is whether the court’s discretion was “exercised in conformity with the governing legal principles” … Because the trial court’s order was not infected by significant legal error, the second potential basis for finding an abuse of discretion outlined in Evans II is inapplicable.”
“[W]e cannot say that the jury verdict was so “inadequate as to be irrational and thus the apparent result of jury bias, prejudice, or corruption.” Evans II, 306 Ga. at 852 (2) (b). In reaching this conclusion, we are mindful that the Supreme Court in Evans II emphasized that the threshold for an appellate court to set aside a jury verdict approved by a trial court under OCGA § 51-12-12 is “extremely high” and that the trial court’s approval of a verdict “creates a presumption of correctness which is not to be disturbed absent compelling evidence.””
“[W]e discern no abuse of discretion by the trial court in its decision under OCGA § 51-12-12 and therefore affirm the court’s order to the extent that it denied the plaintiffs’ challenge to the adequacy of the damages award under that statute.”
Inconsistent vs. Inadequate
However, “[t]he Supreme Court explained that whether a verdict is inconsistent is a separate question from whether a verdict is inadequate under OCGA § 51-12-12 and that a “contradictory verdict is entirely void and requires a new trial, not additur or a retrial on damages alone” … On remand to this Court from the Supreme Court, the parties dispute whether the verdict was void as inconsistent in light of the jury’s award of damages to [the plaintiff] for past medical expenses but zero damages for past pain and suffering, and thus whether the verdict must be set aside.”
The Georgia Appellate Court held: “Accordingly, we vacate the trial court order to the extent that it denied the plaintiffs’ challenge that the verdict was inconsistent and remand for the trial court to consider in the first instance whether the verdict was void as the result of an inconsistent verdict in light of the framework enunciated in Evans II.”
Source Evans v. Rockdale Hospital, LLC, A18A0233.
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