Ga. Supreme Court Upholds Key Medical Malpractice Law Requiring Proof of Gross Negligence for Emergency Room Physicians

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Another legal ruling in the ongoing debate over tort reform – this one from the State of Georgia. MSNBC is reporting (citing Associated Press) that the Georgia Supreme Court, in a divided 4-3 opinion, has upheld a 2005 state law that requires patients to prove “gross negligence,” rather than ordinary negligence, in order to prevail in a medical malpractice case against emergency room physicians.

A Georgia woman, who suffered a stroke after receiving allegedly negligent treatment at an emergency room, challenged the constitutionality of the 2005 law, claiming that it created an insurmountable hurdle at trial.  The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed.

The court’s majority opinion, penned by Justice George Carley, found that it was “entirely logical” for lawmakers to approve the legislation in hopes of stemming the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Usually, the focus of tort reform legislation has been in either instituting a cap on damages, or restricting attorneys’ fees, or both. In 2005, however, the Georgia legislature implemented an additional mechanism that was designed not to limit the amount of recovery in successful lawsuits but was instead specifically designed to make it more difficult for injured patients to prove their case at trial.

Prior to the law enacted in 2005, in order for a patient to prevail in a medical malpractice action, the patient had to be able to prove that the defendant doctor was negligent – i.e. violated the standard of care, which has usually been held to mean that the doctor failed to do what a reasonably competent doctor would have done in the same or similar circumstances. Under the new law in 2005, however, patients were required to prove that the defendant doctor (at least in the emergency room setting) committed “gross negligence,” which is a much higher level of negligence, generally defined as near-total disregard for the rights of others, reckless disregard, or willful or wanton indifference to the consequences of one’s actions.

Clearly, forcing patients to meet this higher burden will make it more difficult for injured patients to sue emergency room physicians, which was the very intent of the Georgia legislature. The ruling also means that negligent doctors who would have been found liable under traditional law will now get off scot-free, leaving injured patients with no recovery.

The same court is expected to rule later this month on the constitutionality of Georgia’s cap of $350,000 on damages for pain and suffering.

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