Georgia Court of Appeals Holds Fact Dispute on Causation in Two Cases

The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the jury should decide two medical malpractice cases on issues of causation.

Everson v. Jordan – in this case, Plaintiffs are the parents of a man who died after running in front of a truck two days after presentation to the emergency department. The Court held that whether the man’s death was reasonably foreseeable to the emergency physician was a jury issue.

Fields v. Taylor – Plaintiffs were the surviving children and estate of a nursing home patient, who developed pressure sores before passing away. Plaintiffs sued the nursing home and the treating physician. The nursing home settled. The trial court granted summary judgment to the physician, ruling there was no evidence to link any alleged acts of the physician to the outcome. On appeal, Plaintiffs alleged they had an expert to opine on violation of standard of care and the treating medical examiner opined the cause of death was sepsis from infected pressure sores. The Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment, holding there was no requirement of a specific “proximate cause” expert and that the jury should decide the link between the alleged negligence and the outcome.

The take-home in both cases is the statement that proximate cause can be proven by linking together disparate pieces of evidence from multiple witnesses. In addition, it remains unclear the extent to which cause-in-fact is an essential element within the proximate cause analysis (compare the holding in the Swint v. Mae case).

Georgia Court of Appeals Holds that Expert Not Required for Proximate Cause in Med Mal Case

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in favor of a doctor and nursing home in the case of Fields v. Taylor, decided January 18, 2017, holding that the trial court erred in granting the motion on proximate cause. Plaintiffs alleged their mother died as a result of sepsis from a decubitus ulcer that developed during a stay at the defendant rehab facility. Plaintiffs presented the testimony of a well-known medical examiner, who opined that the cause of death was sepsis from the wound in his opinion. Defendants moved to exclude the expert’s opinions as unreliable, which was denied, and moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiffs failed to present an expert to opine on the connection between the cause of death and the specific acts of negligence, which they called “proximate cause.” (Note – we would call this “cause-in-fact”).

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to exclude, holding that the expert properly used the “differential diagnosis” method and then drew conclusions based on experience. The Court reversed the grant of summary judgment, holding that the Plaintiffs were not required to produce expert testimony specifically on “proximate cause” and that the testimony of several experts can be pieced together to create a fact dispute. In this case, Plaintiffs presented a standard of care expert and the medical examiner expert. Together, their testimony was sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact.

The take-home is that it continues to be difficult to win summary judgment on proximate cause in medical malpractice cases, even when the expert testimony appears weak and disconnected.