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Coon v. Medical Center, Inc.

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 6, 2017


          NAHMIAS, Justice.

         Amanda Rae Coon lives in Alabama but received treatment from a hospital owned by The Medical Center, Inc. in Georgia. After the hospital mishandled the remains of her stillborn baby, Coon filed this lawsuit. Among other claims, she sought to recover damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court ultimately entered an order granting summary judgment to the hospital. The court applied Georgia's common-law "physical impact rule" to reject Coon's negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, rather than applying case law from the Alabama courts that allows such claims based on the mishandling of human remains. Coon appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, although the seven judges disagreed about the choice-of-law analysis. See Coon v. Medical Center, Inc., 335 Ga.App. 278 (780 S.E.2d 118) (2015).

         We granted Coon's petition for certiorari primarily to review the Court of Appeals' analysis of the choice-of-law issue. The principal opinion of that court held that Georgia law governs Coon's claims based on the public policy exception to the rule of lex loci delicti for choosing which state's law applies to a tort claim. See id. at 282-283. In dissent, Presiding Judge Barnes disagreed about the application of that exception. See id. at 288-291. We conclude that Judge McMillian's special concurrence identified the choice-of-law rule that actually applies in this context: where a claim in a Georgia lawsuit is governed by the common law, and the common law is also in force in the other state, as it is in Alabama, the common law as determined by Georgia's courts will control. See id. at 286-287. Because the Court of Appeals reached the right result, we affirm its judgment.

         1. (a) The pertinent facts - when the evidence in the record is viewed in the light most favorable to Coon as the party opposing summary judgment - and the procedural history of the case in the trial court are recounted in the Court of Appeals principal opinion as follows:

Amanda Rae Coon lives in Opelika, Alabama. On February 8, 2011, Coon, who was 37-weeks pregnant, went for a routine prenatal examination at her obstetrician-gynecologist's office in Columbus, Georgia. During the examination, Coon learned that her unborn baby did not have a heartbeat.

The following day, Coon was admitted to a Columbus hospital owned by The Medical Center, Inc. (the "hospital"), where her labor was induced and she delivered a stillborn baby girl. After the delivery, the hospital's bereavement coordinator spoke with Coon and her father, who informed the coordinator that the remains of the baby were to be released to a funeral home in Opelika. The bereavement coordinator completed a mortuary permit and supporting documents that included the pertinent funeral home information and placed these documents with Coon's patient chart.

The stillborn baby initially remained with Coon in her hospital room, but Coon's mother later informed the bereavement coordinator that Coon was tired and asked that the baby be removed. The coordinator placed Coon's baby in a separate holding room on the same floor until someone could take the baby to the hospital morgue. In addition to Coon's baby, there was a smaller stillborn baby boy, who was less than 20 weeks in gestation, already in the holding room.
When the bereavement coordinator placed Coon's baby in the holding room with the smaller baby, the hospital floor was in the middle of the evening shift change. A nurse whose shift had just begun volunteered to transport both babies from the holding room to the morgue. Under a hospital policy put into effect two days earlier, identification tags were to be placed on the arm and leg of a stillborn baby and on the outside of the cadaver bag before being delivered to the morgue. The nurse filled out the three tags for both of the babies.
The nurse had not yet had an opportunity to affix the identification tags when a hospital security guard came to the floor and asked the nurse if she was ready for him to escort her to the morgue with the babies. Because the babies were not yet prepared for transport to the morgue, the security guard decided to assist the nurse with the placement of the identification tags. The security guard had never tagged a deceased baby, and his job duties did not include tagging the remains of deceased patients or preparing them for transport to the morgue.

When the security guard began assisting the nurse, they mixed up the identification tags. The nurse tagged the smaller baby with the identification tags for Coon's baby, and the security guard tagged Coon's baby with the identification tags for the smaller baby. The security guard placed a tag on the outside of the cadaver bag for Coon's baby, but chose not to "fool" with the tags on the baby's body because he did not want to remove any of the baby's clothing. The nurse repeatedly told the security guard that he needed to place identification tags on the body of Coon's baby, but he chose not to do so.

The nurse and security guard transported the stillborn babies to the morgue with the wrong identification tags and logged in the remains. Because of the incorrect identification tags, the hospital mistakenly released the wrong baby to the Opelika funeral home.
On February 12, 2011, Coon, her family members, and other mourners attended a funeral at an Opelika cemetery for a deceased stillborn baby whom they believed was Coon's. Coon and her family members did not view the baby's remains before or during the funeral service after the funeral director advised against it, given the condition of the remains.[1] The costs of transporting the baby from the hospital to the funeral home were paid by Coon's husband through the military, and Coon's aunts paid for the funeral service and donated the burial plot.
On February 23, 2011, the hospital discovered that it had released the wrong baby to the Opelika funeral home. The hospital contacted the director of the Opelika funeral home, informed him of the mistake, and requested contact information for Coon's family. The funeral director advised the hospital to contact Coon's father rather than Coon herself because "mentally, she [would] just not [be] able to take it" if she learned of the mistaken identification.
Later that day, the hospital's chief executive officer contacted Coon by telephone and informed her that the hospital had released the wrong baby for burial. The following day, the baby who had been mistakenly released to the funeral home was exhumed from the Opelika cemetery. The funeral home director then traveled to Columbus to deliver the exhumed baby to a different funeral home and to retrieve Coon's baby from the hospital.
After the exhumed baby's remains were handed over to the representative of another funeral home, the Opelika funeral director retrieved a cadaver bag from the hospital morgue that had an identification tag for Coon's baby on the outside of it. Yet, when the director returned to his funeral home in Opelika, he discovered that the cadaver bag contained nothing but a blanket, and he had to return again to the hospital morgue to obtain Coon's baby, whom hospital employees had left in a holding room in the morgue. In violation of hospital policy, no documentation was made in the morgue log book showing when Coon's baby or the exhumed baby were returned to the morgue or to show when the switch occurred and who was involved.
Once the funeral director obtained the proper remains from the hospital, Coon's baby was buried at the Opelika cemetery. The hospital paid the costs associated with the exhumation of the misidentified baby and the subsequent burial of the correct remains. Coon did not attend the second burial because she "could not handle having to go through that all over again."
In March 2011, Coon filed the present lawsuit against the hospital, seeking damages for the emotional distress she suffered as [a] result of the mishandling of her stillborn child's remains.[2]Following discovery, the hospital moved for summary judgment, contending that Coon's emotional distress claims failed under Georgia law because Coon suffered no physical injury or pecuniary loss and the conduct of the hospital was not intentional, reckless, extreme, or outrageous. In response, Coon argued that Alabama law applied under the choice-of-law rule of lex loci delicti because she suffered the relevant emotional distress in Opelika, where she learned of the hospital's mistake and the funeral service, burial, exhumation, and reburial had occurred. Coon further argued that under Alabama law, she was not required to prove physical injury, pecuniary loss, or intentional or reckless misconduct to support an emotional distress claim for the mishandling of human remains.
The trial court concluded that Alabama law applied and denied the hospital's motion for summary judgment. When the hospital moved for reconsideration, the trial court denied the motion but certified its order for immediate review. The hospital then filed an application for interlocutory appeal. [The Court of Appeals] initially granted the application but later dismissed it as improvidently granted.
Following the dismissal of the appeal, the hospital filed a renewed motion for summary judgment, contending that Alabama law should not apply under the public policy exception to the lex loci delicti rule and that all of Coon's claims failed under Georgia law. The trial court agreed with the hospital, concluding that the application of Alabama law would contravene Georgia public policy because Alabama, unlike Georgia, does not have an "impact rule" in emotional distress cases involving the negligent mishandling of human remains. Applying Georgia rather than Alabama law, the trial court further concluded that Coon's claims failed as a matter of law under the more stringent standard for emotional distress claims in Georgia. Consequently, the trial court granted the hospital's renewed motion for summary judgment, resulting in [an] appeal by Coon.

Coon, 335 Ga.App. at 279-282 (footnotes renumbered).

         (b) In a seven-judge decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. Chief Judge Doyle wrote the principal opinion, which was joined in full by Presiding Judge Phipps and Judge Ray; then-Judge Boggs concurred in the judgment only; Judge McMillian wrote a special concurrence as to the choice-of-law issues, which Presiding Judge Andrews joined; and Presiding Judge Barnes wrote a dissenting opinion[3] At least six of the judges agreed that the proper starting point for the choice-of-law analysis was the rule of lex loci delicti, which requires application of the tort law of the state where the tort was committed, and that a tort is "committed" where the injury is suffered rather than where the tortfeasor acts See Id. at 282 (plurality opinion of Doyle, CJ), 285-286 (McMillian, J, concurring specially), 288 (Barnes, P.J., dissenting). Beyond that, the choice-of-law approaches diverged.

         Division 1 of the principal opinion, which spoke only for a plurality of three judges, concluded that it was unnecessary to decide whether the trial court correctly ruled that the injury alleged was suffered in Alabama. See id. at 282. Instead, the principal opinion relied on the public policy exception to the rule of lex loci delicti to conclude that Georgia tort law should apply even if the tort was committed in Alabama. See id. at 282-283. "Under the public policy exception, [the Georgia court] will not apply the law of the place where the injury was sustained if it would conflict with Georgia's public policy." Id. at 282 n.8. The principal opinion cited the public policy behind Georgia's physical ...

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