Occasionally, lawsuits arise, the outcome of which, could have a broad impact on hospitals and/or health care providers across Georgia. In these instances, GHA may file an amicus curie
or friend-of-the-court brief to help explain such impact and policy ramifications to the court.
8.23.2018 GHA Legal Update: Atlanta Medical Center v. Thomas and Rockdale Medical Center v. Oller
Atlanta Medical Center v. Thomas (S17G1021)
Following an auto accident, plaintiff was transported by EMS to Atlanta Medical Center on a backboard. The emergency department physician ordered a cervical CT scan and a radiologist, after reading the results of the scan, concluded the plaintiff did not have a cervical spine fracture. Based upon this determination, the emergency department physician signed a discharge order and the patient’s cervical spine collar was removed by a nurse. While being wheeled outside to await her ride home, she lost consciousness and was rushed back into the hospital. Additional radiology studies identified a spinal fracture and the plaintiff suffered severe neurological damage.
The plaintiff filed a complaint right before the statute of limitations expired and included a vicarious liability claim against the hospital for the actions of the two physicians. There was no allegation of negligence by any of the hospital’s nursing staff, including the nurse who removed the plaintiff’s cervical spine collar. During discovery, the plaintiff’s counsel obtained a hospital policy requiring physicians to remove cervical spine collars. Then, over a year after the statute of limitations expired, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint asserting a new imputed negligence claim against the hospital for its employed nurse’s simple negligence in failing to follow the hospital policy. On the hospital’s motion, the trial court dismissed the new claim as untimely. The court noted the original complaint did not include any allegations of negligence by the hospital nursing staff and therefore the new imputed liability claim did not arise from “the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading” and did not relate back under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c). On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, finding the new claims did relate back to the original complaint. The Georgia Supreme Court granted the hospital’s petition for certiorari, agreeing to review the Court of Appeal’s decision. GHA filed an amicus brief cautioning the Court against allowing plaintiffs to equate violations of hospital policies with violations of the standard of care and urging the Court to reverse the lower appellate court’s ruling.
On June 29, 2018, the Georgia Supreme Court issued its decision affirming the judgement of the Court of Appeals. The Court stated that under Georgia’s Civil Practice Act a complaint need only include “a short and plain statement of the claims showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Noting that O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c), mirrors Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 (c), the Court then turned to federal courts and those in other states with laws that also mirror federal rule 15 (c) for guidance regarding how to interpret and apply O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c). Citing with approval a formulation by United States Supreme Court related to FRCP 15 (c), the Court articulated a liberal new standard for applying O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c) that overwhelmingly favors plaintiffs to the detriment of defendants. Specifically, the Court found that under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c), amendments should be allowed to relate back to previously filed pleadings for purposes of statute of limitations calculations, even where they include entirely new legal theories and identify new individuals as the basis for imputed liability claims, as long as there is a “single episode-in-suit” sharing a “common core of operative facts.” Where new claims or legal theories occurred at the same place and time, involve the same subject matter and events and led to the same injury set forth in the original complaint, these factors demonstrate a ‘common core of operative facts’ uniting the original and newly asserted claims.
Applied to the facts in Thomas, the Court found that all controlling factors supported the plaintiff. The negligence by the physicians and the nurse were close in time (only hours apart), occurred at the exact same location (the hospital) and involved the same general subject matter (the negligent treatment of the plaintiff’s spine). In addition, the new allegations were part of the same offense that led to the same injury. Accordingly, the claims in the amended complaints were part of a single episode-in-suit and shared a common core of operative facts with the original complaint, and thus related back to the date the original complaint was filed for purposes of determining compliance with the statue of limitations.
Rockdale Medical Center v. Oller
The plaintiffs in Oller voluntarily dismissed an initial wrongful death action and later filed a renewal complaint alleging medical malpractice against the hospital, a nurse, a physician group practice and two of its employed physicians. The renewal compliant also included a broad allegation that the group practice was vicariously liable for “the physicians that attended the decedent.” The plaintiffs filed a timely expert affidavit under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-9.1 related to the actions of the two named physicians, then amended the previously filed affidavit after the statute of limitations expired to include new allegations of negligence by a different physician employed by the group practice who was not a named party in the lawsuit.
Based on this untimely affidavit, the plaintiffs sought to hold the group practice vicariously liable for the conduct of the previously unidentified non-party physician. The trial court concluded that the statute of limitations prohibited the attempt to assert a new vicarious liability claim against the group practice by means of the amended affidavit. The plaintiffs appealed and the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case. In its amicus curiae brief in support of the defendants, GHA argued that existing precedential case law required a ruling in favor of the defendant group practice. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and reversed the trial court, distinguishing rather than overruling existing case law. On September 5, 2017, the defendants filed aPetition for Writ of Certiorari with the Georgia Supreme Court asking the Court to review and reverse the decision by the Court of Appeals. However, on August 20, 2018 the Supreme Court denied the petition, thereby allowing the decision of the Court of Appeals to stand.
Atlanta Women’s Specialists v. Trabue
On August 15, 2018, GHA, together with the Medical Association of Georgia (MAG) filed an Amicus Curiae Brief in Atlanta Women’s Specialists v. Trabue, an appeal in a medical malpractice case involving a $45 million jury verdict against an OB/GYN and a medical group practice. The plaintiffs filed an original and a renewal complaint, asserting a timely professional negligence claim against the OB/GYN and a timely vicarious liability claim against the medical practice for the underlying negligence of the OB/GYN, who was employed by the group. Then, on the eve of trial, after the medical malpractice statutes of limitations and repose had both expired, the plaintiffs asserted a new claim of vicarious liability against the group practice in the pretrial order, for the conduct of a different employed physician who was not a party in the lawsuit. Neither the original nor the renewal complaint contained any facts, allegations, or claims that the non-party physician was negligent in caring for the plaintiff, nor was her conduct criticized in either of the expert affidavits filed in the case. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs argued, and the trial court agreed, that these untimely claims related back to the date of filing the renewal complaint, and allowed the new imputed negligence claim to go to the jury. The jury found that both the OB/GYN and the non-party physician contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries and held the group practice vicariously liable for the negligence of both physicians.
GHA’s and MAG’s amicus brief addresses the necessity of fair notice pleading and the strict application of the medical malpractice statute of repose and urges the Court to reverse the lower court’s decision allowing the plaintiffs to present their untimely claims to the jury.”
For additional information regarding these cases, please contact Temple Sellers, GHA’s General Counsel.