The Supreme Court of Georgia Clarifies When Ordinary Negligence Does Not Cut It

  • Mar 7 2018

Written by: Spencer H. Brown

SOUTHEASTERN PAIN SPECIALISTS, P.C. v. BROWN et al.; DOHERTY v. BROWN et al.; SOUTHEASTERN PAIN AMBULATORY SURGERY CENTER, LLC v. BROWN et al.

These companion cases arose from a medical malpractice action brought on behalf of Mrs. Brown, which alleged that she suffered catastrophic brain damage from oxygen deprivation while undergoing a procedure to relieve back pain. Mrs. Brown passed away while the suit was pending, and her complaint was amended to add a wrongful death claim by her surviving spouse (collectively, “Brown”).

This decision is important to medical malpractice litigation given the Supreme Court of Georgia’s further clarification on what acts or omissions by a professional require the exercise of expert medical judgment and require the plaintiff to demonstrate medical malpractice/negligence as opposed to ordinary negligence. According to the Court, whether a defendant’s decision constitutes medical judgment is not only based on whether laypersons would or should know how to respond to certain information, but also whether “lay persons would know the proper response to that information in the midst of a complex medical procedure.”

At trial, the judge gave, over the defendants’ objection, a jury instruction on ordinary negligence (in addition to instructions on medical negligence).  The plaintiffs argued that such an instruction was warranted because of the defendants’ “obvious[]” duty “to save the patient if they’re not breathing. . . .” The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, and the defendants appealed. Ultimately, it was affirmed on appeal.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an opinion agreeing with the appellant-defendants and holding that “[t]he Court of Appeals erred in concluding that an ordinary negligence instruction was authorized by evidence that a doctor defendant responded inadequately to medical data provided by certain medical equipment during a medical procedure.”

More specifically, the Supreme Court found no merit to the Court of Appeals’ holding that “whether and how to respond to medical data from medical devices during a medical procedure does not require medical judgment.” The Supreme Court explained that “the ability of the public to purchase a medical device [here, a pulse oximeter] is not evidence of general lay knowledge regarding how to interpret and act upon readings provided by that device, much less in the middle of medical procedure.”

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