Articles Tagged with medical malpractice

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You Supreme Court nerds out there (and you know who you are) are probably aware of the fact that the United States Supreme Court  recently heard oral arguments in  McWilliams v. Dunn. At issue in the case is whether James McWilliams, an indigent defendant whose mental health was a significant factor at his capital trial, was entitled to an independent psychological expert to testify on his behalf. The prosecution presented the expert testimony of one psychiatrist and argued the Defendant was not entitled to his “own” psychiatrist as the one offered by the prosecution was essentially neutral, even though he was retained and paid by the State.  Stephen Bright, longtime president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, represented McWilliams.  The issue presented to the Supreme Court in McWilliams was this:  “Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.” Amicus, the podcast by Slate that focuses on the Supreme Court, covered the McWilliams case in its latest episode, “The Myth of the Neutral Expert.”

This is a fascinating discussion, especially considering the very life of an inmate hinges on the opinion.  Some states have even placed a temporary halt on executions for inmates on death row until the McWilliams opinion is delivered.   As a personal injury trial lawyer, I mused how expert witnesses are treated differently in civil cases, you know, in cases where mere money is at issue and not someone’s life or liberty.  Of course, having one so-called “neutral” expert witness, to testify for both sides of a case, would never happen in civil cases.  I haven’t tried a case without the appearance of at least one expert witness at trial in well over 20 years now. My cases are complex and naturally either require or will benefit from expert testimony. At a minimum. I will present the testimony of a treating physician, who certainly is an expert in his or her medical specialty, even if not an expert “specially retained to testify at trial.”  In civil cases, especially medical malpractice cases, we often hear such testimony described as “The Battle of the Experts.”  Defense attorneys have gotten into the habit of hiring just one more expert than the plaintiff has so that they can argue they have “more” experts on their side and, therefore, naturally, you should side with the party who has more experts (regardless of how credible those experts are!).  What jurors may not be aware of is that the defense experts are being paid by the defendant doctor’s malpractice insurance carrier, not the doctor himself, so the sky’s the limit.  Not so for plaintiffs.  Plaintiff’s must front those expenses out of their own pockets, and because no individual plaintiff can afford to do so, this means the plaintiff’s attorney must pay for the experts in a case on his or her own dime. That may not make sense to you but that’s how it works.  As you can imagine, hiring numerous experts simply to have one more than the other side has can get expensive.  Where does this end? But defendants have unlimited sources of money for this and plaintiffs don’t.

Here is the law of Georgia that the trial judge will read to the jury regarding expert witnesses:

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Today, a DeKalb County jury returned a verdict against two nurses who are employees of DeKalb Medical Center in the amount of $3.012 Million.  The case is  Edwards v. Nicome, et al., 11A36121. filed in the DeKalb County State Court.  The case  centered around the May 2009 death of Shari Edwards, age 31, who died of heart failure three days after being admitted to DeKalb Medical for preeclampsia and ultimately giving birth to her daughter.  A third defendant, a physician, was not held liable by the jury.  Congratulations go out to Plaintiff’s attorneys Bill Atkins, Rod Edmund and Keith Lindsay for what was obviously a valiant fight for justice in a three week trial.  The case was defended by a trial attorney who I have tried a case against before, Tim Bendin.  Bendin and his law firm often represents DeKalb Medical Center in personal injury cases.  Because the nurses who were found to be at fault are employees of DeKalb Medical Center, DeKalb Medical Center is responsible for the verdict.

The plaintiffs, the parents of the deceased Ms. Edwards, argued their daughter died because of peripartum cardiomyopathy, or heart failure, and the failure of her healthcare team, including Defendant physician Nicome and nurses Cox and Huber-Smith, to detect or treat her deteriorating condition.  The evidence showed Edwards’ blood pressure problems had initially been treated, but in the hours before her death her condition became more precarious with low oxygen levels and blood-gas levels joining her complaints that she was short of breath. Despite this, Edmond said medical records showed staff did not take Edwards’ vital signs for three hours before she went into the cardiac arrest that proved fatal.  The defense, however, argued Edwards’ condition was stable in the hours before her cardiac arrest, and her healthcare team treated her appropriately throughout her stay, including ordering tests and intervention where necessary.  Bendin, the nurses’s attorney, seemingly attempted to cast blame on the attending physician, arguing they were just trying to follow doctor’s orders. This simply didn’t work. No word on whether DeKalb Medical Center will appeal the verdict. They have 30 days from the entry of judgment to do so.

I have often had defense attorneys tell me that doctors and hospitals win 95% of their trials in Georgia. If that is true, to say the odds were against this family and this team of trial lawyers would be an understatement. And $3 Million for the value of the life of a 31 year old  could never be characterized of being a “runaway” verdict by any of those who think the Georgia Civil Justice System is out of whack and needs reform.  In my opinion, $3 Million for the full value of the life of this mother is probably even slightly conservative.  This verdict was a unanimous verdict by 12 DeKalb County citizens who all saw the evidence of negligence the same way, demanding justice in favor of the deceased patient’s family. There is nothing about it that could be labeled “runaway.”

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Did you know there is underway right now an effort in the Georgia Senate to eliminate your Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in medical malpractice cases?  That’s right.  A bill has been introduced (again), SB 86, that seeks to eliminate jury trials in medical malpractice claims.  This bill was introduced by Senator Brandon Beach from Alpharetta, and this is, at least, the second time around for the bill. Last year the same bill was introduced and a coalition made up of odd bedfellows, the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association (GTLA) and the  Medical Association of Georgia (MAG), opposed it and it died a slow death. Like Lazarus, it has now been resurrected.

Supporters of the bill make the wild claim that this bill would reduce so-called “defensive medicine” where doctors  supposedly order unnecessary medical tests.  I find such a claim outrageous and offensive.  Doctors should, likewise, be offended by this strategy.  I have talked with many doctors and taken many depositions of doctors.  I have never found them to order what they know are unnecessary medical tests.  For a doctor to order what he or she knows to be an unnecessary test (and get paid for it, by the way) would be fraudulent and would violate every ethical oath the physician has ever taken.  So that cannot be the real issue with this piece of legislation.

Who is behind it?  Not the doctors themselves, as evidenced by the opposition of MAG, the doctors’ professional association.  Not the citizens of Georgia.  There has been no rallying cry that doctors shouldn’t be held accountable as every other citizen may be with he or she commits negligence that results in injury to someone.  There have been no “runaway” verdicts in Georgia, either.  Statistics show that doctors and hospitals win almost 85%-90% of all medical malpractice trials in Georgia.