What’s the damage?
Ga. courts weigh in on malpractice awards
Hospitals and physicians in Georgia are celebrating a legal victory for tort reform while looking ahead with some trepidation toward an imminent decision that will either uphold or sink the noneconomic damage caps at the core of the 2005 medical malpractice law.
The Georgia Supreme Court upheld a provision last week that requires plaintiffs to prove “gross negligence” to win a malpractice lawsuit over emergency care. The lawsuit at issue alleged negligence on the part of 269-bed St. Francis Hospital in Columbus, the treating physician and the physician’s practice because a CT scan wasn’t ordered for a woman whose brain aneurysm was undetected when she was brought to the hospital’s emergency room by ambulance in 2007.
Before the case was tried, the plaintiffs filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the higher burden the law places on cases involving emergency care. The question was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld the law in a 4-3 decision.
The majority rejected arguments that the law violates the state constitution’s “uniformity clause” because it creates a higher liability standard for certain providers, and that it deprives patients of their right to equal protection of the laws because their access to a legal remedy is different depending on the setting in which they’re treated.
Meanwhile, a state judge in Atlanta ruled in February 2009 that the law’s $350,000 caps on noneconomic damages violate the state’s constitution because they usurp the judg- ment of a jury, which in this case awarded $1.15 million beyond medical expenses. The decision was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last September.
Because the cases turn on different legal grounds, the recent win doesn’t necessarily signal that the higher court is likely to be similarly sympathetic in the caps case, in which a woman was left severely disfigured after a cosmetic surgery procedure on her face. “You’re dealing with different facts and a very different provision,” said Temple Sellers, the Georgia Hospital Association’s general counsel and vice president for legal services.
The decision did give providers some reason for optimism. Whereas the state judge who ruled against the caps questioned the Legislature’s basic determination that malpractice premiums were creating a crisis of healthcare access, Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Justice George Carley recognized that the emergency-care provision was a logical means of achieving a legitimate goal. “If that analysis plays out in the caps context, I think we have a shot,” Sellers said.