In light of the poor health of many who enter medical facilities, death is not an uncommon occurrence. Although many of these deaths can be attributed to factors beyond the control of any physician, some can be traced to the negligent conduct of practitioners, leaving doctors and the loved ones of those deceased to wrangle in court. To the chagrin of many of these bereaved plaintiffs, however, the standard for demonstrating negligence liability in medical malpractice actions associated with wrongful death in Georgia is quite different from the burden in a typical negligence suit. In its recent decision in Reeves v. Mahathre, the Georgia Court of Appeals illuminated how some of these differences function in practice and gave further guidance to future litigants on the evidentiary burden they face when asserting a medical malpractice claim.
This case arose from the death of an elderly patient with a history of hypertension and diabetes, who came into the emergency room at Dorminy Medical Center complaining of nausea and abdominal pain. The attending physician, one of the defendants in this case, took a medical history and performed a physical examination of the patient. After these preliminary undertakings, the physician ordered a series of tests, which included a complete blood count, blood-chemistry analysis, urinalysis, and an upright kidney-ureter-bladder x-ray. Although the patient’s white blood cell count was elevated, indicating possible infection, the other tests came back normal, and the physician prescribed the patient pain medication with instructions to see her primary care physician in two days. The following morning, the patient went to her primary care physician and was later that afternoon admitted as an inpatient to Dorminy Medical with increased abdominal pain, fever, and an elevated white-blood-cell count. Shortly thereafter, a CT scan was performed, which showed that the patient was suffering from a kidney stone. Dorminy Medical did not have an available urologist on call but consulted with one at Tift Regional Medical Center. The urologist said Tift Regional did not have any available beds, but the decision was made to transfer the patient promptly the following morning. The following morning the patient was transferred to Tift Regional, which is approximately 30 miles from Dorminy Medical, but by the time she arrived, she was in critical condition and could not undergo anesthesia necessary for surgery. The patient never stabilized and died later that afternoon as a result of urosepsis.
Following the death, the estate of the deceased brought a wrongful death suit against, among others, the attending physician and his employer, Ben Hill Emergency Group, LLC. The estate alleged the physician was negligent in the care he provided. Specifically, they argued that the attending physician was negligent in failing to order a CT scan or formally diagnose the deceased’s condition prior to discharging her from the emergency room during the initial visit. The physician moved for summary judgment, arguing that he did not breach the applicable standard of care and, even if he did, the plaintiff had failed to establish a causal connection between his care and the patient’s death. The trial court concurred and granted the motion.
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