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Georgia Court Of Appeals Affirms Limitation of Hospital’s Vicarious Liability and Holds Nurse Cannot Opine on Cause of Death – Health Law and Regulation Update Blog Post by Jasmyn Jackson

October 29, 2021

Health Law and Regulation Update Blog Post by Jasmyn Jackson.

The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling that a hospital cannot be held vicariously liable for an independent contractor physician based on written contract with corporate practice group. In addition, the Court held that a nurse is not qualified to offer an opinion on cause of death in a medical malpractice and wrongful death case.

Plaintiff sued an anesthesiologist and a hospital for vicarious liability for the anesthesiologist, alleging the treating physician was an employee of the hospital and not an independent contractor; therefore, the hospital is liable for his actions. After surgery, the anesthesiologist extubated the patient when the vital signs began to deteriorate. The anesthesiologist attempted to reintubate four times before calling a code blue. An emergency physician responded and successfully reintubated the patient. The patient developed and died from an anoxic brain injury.

The hospital moved for summary judgment under O.C.G.A. §51-2-5.1, which shields hospitals from vicarious liability of independent contractors under most circumstances. The evidence presented showed the hospital had a written contract with the anesthesiologist and the practice group. In opposition to the motion and in an attempt to hold the hospital liable for the acts of the anesthesiologist as an employee, Plaintiff argued that the contract did not unambiguously identify the anesthesiologist as an independent contractor. The trial court granted summary judgment and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court explained a hospital is not liable for the torts of a healthcare professional unless there is an employee relationship, which is established by the language of the contract. Here, the contract was clear that the corporation was an independent contractor and the physician was the sole shareholder, officer, and director of the corporation. In addition, the contract gave the corporation the sole authority to control and discharge the physician. As a result, the hospital could not be held vicariously liable.

Plaintiffs also argued the trial court erred in granting summary judgment based on a lack of evidence showing causation. The hospital moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff’s expert, a nurse practitioner, could not opine on cause of death as a matter of law. The trial court granted summary judgment to the hospital and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court held it was not within the scope of practice for a nurse practitioner to opine on cause of death. The Court distinguished an earlier case in which it held a nurse’s causation opinion fell outside of the realm of her expertise because opinions about medical diagnosis fall outside of the limits of the expertise of non-physicians.

Take-home: As a general rule, nurses (registered or advanced) are not qualified to offer medical causation opinions. In addition, the plain language of a contract may shield a hospital from vicarious liability under Section 51-2-5.1.

The case is Chybicki v. Coffee Regional Medical Center, Inc. ___ S.E.2d___, 2021 WL 4987583 (2021).