Top court turns down bid for damages-only medical liability retrial

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

A Georgia patient’s husband cannot go forward with a retrial that would focus only on the damages awarded in his wife’s medical liability case and not allow a jury to retry the liability of the facts of the case.

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A recent ruling from the Supreme Court of Georgia that rejected Shaw G. Evans’ request for a damages-only retrial is a relief to physicians who told the state’s high court that retrial only focused on the damages would open up physicians and hospitals to increased liability. Evans sought a retrial on damages because he believes the dollar amount awarded was too low.

“Allowing a separate jury to hear a damages-only trial has been proven to lead to excessive damages and injustice,” the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies and the Medical Association of Georgia tell the court in an amicus brief they filed jointly in the case, Evans v. Rockdale Hospital. “A concern courts have identified with partial retrials is the prejudice to the parties that can result from the evidentiary decisions made in the retrial. Often the second jury cannot set damages without an understanding of the underlying breach.”

The Georgia ruling didn’t directly address Evans’ request for a damages-only retrial. Instead, the court vacated the Court of Appeals of Georgia ruling that concluded that the jury award “shocked the conscience” by not awarding damages for pain and suffering and that Evans was entitled to a retrial that determined both liability and damages.

The high court ruling, aligning with the Litigation Center brief, says the lower court “could not substitute its judgment for that of the trial court on the fact-based question of whether the damages awarded were within the range authorized by a preponderance of the evidence.” Justices on the high court wrote that “the Court of Appeals instead should have limited its review to whether the trial court, who saw the witnesses and heard the testimony, abused its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial.”

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The decision sends the case back to the Court of Appeals to review whether the trial court abused its discretion when it initially denied Evans’ request for a new trial. It leaves, for now, the initial trial court verdict intact.

Facts of the case

Janice Evans went to the Rockdale Hospital emergency department after awaking with a terrible headache, accompanied by intermittent vomiting and diarrhea. She was discharged the next day and told to return if her condition worsened. Her condition declined, and she suffered multiple strokes that left her totally and permanently disabled with cognitive and other impairments.

Her husband sued the hospital, the nursing staff and the examining physician for medical malpractice and loss of consortium. Rockdale and the others argued at trial that Ms. Evans was primarily at fault because she had preexisting uncontrolled hypertension, was aware of it and did not adequately seek treatment to manage her condition.

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The jury found the hospital 51% at fault for the injuries and Janice 49% at fault, awarding Janice nearly $1.2 million for past medical damages and her husband more than $67,000 for loss of consortium. It awarded nothing for Janice’s pain and suffering, future medical expenses or lost wages. The trial court then reduced the award to make it proportional to Janice’s fault.

According to court records, an appellate court judge during oral arguments said the jury’s award had the hallmarks of a “compromise verdict,” which happens when some jurors don’t believe a defendant is liable, but vote for liability in exchange for a relatively low damages award.

“This mixed verdict suggests the jury was largely motivated by sympathy for [the Evans’] current financial situation. In these cases, the liability finding and damages awards are inextricably intertwined. They are parts of the same compromise,” the Litigation Center brief says in its argument to not allow a damages-only trial. “The concern here is not that the jury failed to understand the extent of plaintiffs’ injuries such that another jury is needed to assess proper damages but that physicians, hospital and other defendants will be subject to much greater liability than the jury thought was just.”