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Evans v. Rockdale Hospital, LLC

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

April 12, 2018

EVANS et al.
v.
ROCKDALE HOSPITAL, LLC. No. A18A0233

          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          BARNES, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Shawn G. Evans, individually and as the guardian of his wife, Janice K. Evans, brought this medical malpractice action against Rockdale Hospital, LLC d/b/a Rockdale Medical Center ("Rockdale") and other defendants after Mrs. Evans suffered catastrophic injuries from an undiagnosed ruptured aneurysm. Following a trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding Rockdale 51 percent at fault and Mrs. Evans 49 percent at fault. The jury awarded Mrs. Evans damages for her past medical expenses, but zero damages for future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, and past and future pain and suffering. The plaintiffs filed a motion for additur or, alternatively, for a new trial on damages, which the trial court denied, resulting in this appeal.

         For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that the jury's award of zero damages for Mrs. Evans's past pain and suffering rendered the award of damages so clearly inadequate under a preponderance of the evidence as to shock the conscience and necessitate a new trial under OCGA § 51-12-12 (b). Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's denial of the plaintiffs' motion. However, because this case involves issues of comparative negligence, the retrial on remand cannot be limited to the issue of damages and instead must encompass all issues.

         Following a jury trial, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict. Intl. Images v. Smith, 171 Ga.App. 172, 172 (318 S.E.2d 711) (1984). So viewed, the evidence showed that on the night of Saturday, January 14, 2012, Mrs. Evans, who was 60 years old, woke up with the worst headache that she had ever experienced, jumped out of bed, and vomited on herself. She then had episodes of vomiting and diarrhea throughout the night. Mrs. Evans believed that she was suffering from food poisoning and had become dehydrated. However, a severe "thunderclap" headache, commonly described by patients as the worst headache in their life, followed by vomiting and nausea, are common symptoms associated with bleeding in the brain.

         Mrs. Evans's symptoms did not subside over the next two days, and around 8:00 p.m. on Monday, January 16, 2012, Mr. Evans, her husband, drove her to the Rockdale emergency room. After arriving there, Mrs. Evans complained of dehydration, headache, diarrhea, and nausea, and she told the nursing staff that she might have food poisoning from a local restaurant. The triage nurse failed to document Mrs. Evans's initial complaint of headache in the medical chart and chose the charting template on the computer for digestive system illnesses, which remained the template used by the nursing staff throughout Mrs. Evans's stay in the emergency room.

         The triage nurse documented Mrs. Evans's initial blood pressure as 213/105, a blood pressure within the American Heart Association's guidelines for hypertensive crisis. All of the blood pressure readings subsequently taken by the emergency room nursing staff reflected that Mrs. Evans had a continued systolic blood pressure of over 200, which is "extremely high" and also can be a sign of bleeding in the brain. Additionally, Mrs. Evans requested medication for a severe throbbing headache, which she described as an 8 out of 10 on the hospital pain scale. Despite her complaint of a severe headache and high blood pressure, the nursing staff did not ask Mrs. Evans focused questions about her headache and thus did not learn from her and document in the medical chart that her initial onset of symptoms had involved her waking up with the most severe headache of her life.

         Mrs. Evans was diagnosed with high blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting, with no specific cause identified. The emergency room physician told Mrs. Evans that he was concerned about her high blood pressure and that she needed to see her primary care physician that week. Mrs. Evans was discharged from the emergency room in the early morning hours of January 17, 2012, and was instructed to return if her condition worsened.

         After Mrs. Evans was discharged, Mr. Evans called a local primary care practice and made Mrs. Evans an appointment for the following Monday, the first available appointment. Mrs. Evans's severe headache and vomiting returned after she was discharged, and she continued to have those symptoms throughout the week. She fell several times during the week and had to crawl back to bed on at least one occasion. On January 22, 2012, Mr. Evans called 911 after Mrs. Evans began moving her mouth unnaturally while eating and was unable to get up from the couch.

         Mrs. Evans was transported by ambulance to the Rockdale emergency room, where a CT scan showed a blood clot in her brain. She was transferred to Emory Hospital, and further testing revealed that she had suffered several strokes as a result of a ruptured brain aneurysm. Mrs. Evans underwent multiple surgeries and spent months in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility. She is permanently and totally disabled, is incontinent, requires a feeding tube, cannot speak, has severe cognitive and other impairments, has a seizure disorder, and requires 24-hour care.

         In August 2013, Mr. Evans, individually and as guardian of Mrs. Evans, sued Rockdale for medical malpractice and loss of consortium.[1] During the trial, the parties disputed whether Mrs. Evans suffered from a ruptured brain aneurysm when she presented at the emergency room on January 16, 2012, whether a diagnosis of a ruptured aneurysm on that date would have led to a better outcome, and whether the Rockdale emergency room nurses violated the standard of care. Rockdale also argued that Mrs. Evans's fault exceeded that of Rockdale because, among other things, she had not obtained treatment for her longstanding, uncontrolled hypertension despite being aware of that condition.

         As to damages, the plaintiffs presented medical billing records reflecting that Mrs. Evans's total past medical expenses were $1, 196, 288.97, as well as testimony regarding the procedures and rehabilitation that she had to undergo after the ruptured aneurysm up to the point of trial. The plaintiffs also presented evidence of future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, and of Mrs. Evans's current impaired condition requiring 24-hour care. Mr. Evans and a certified nurse's aide testified to the care that had to be provided to Mrs. Evans, and the jury was shown a day-in-the-life video reflecting the care provided by Mr. Evans and the nurse's aide.

         Rockdale did not contest that Mrs. Evans was catastrophically injured and did not address the issue of damages during closing argument. During the cross-examination of the plaintiffs' damages experts who opined on Mrs. Evans's lost wages and future medical expenses, Rockdale did challenge the experts' credibility and the extent of the damages sought for future medical expenses.

         Following its deliberations, the jury returned its verdict on a special verdict form. In Section 1 of the verdict form, the jury awarded Mrs. Evans the amount she had requested in damages for past medical expenses ($1, 196, 288.97), but awarded her zero damages for future medical expenses, zero damages for past and future lost wages, and zero damages for past and future pain and suffering. The jury awarded Mr. Evans $67, 555 in damages for loss of consortium. In Section 2 of the verdict form, the jury apportioned fault among the parties, finding that Rockdale was 51 percent at fault and that Mrs. Evans was 49 percent at fault. The trial court reduced the amount of damages awarded by the jury in proportion to the percentages of fault and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and against Rockdale in the amount of $586, 191.60 for past medical expenses and $33, 101.95 for loss of consortium.

         The plaintiffs filed a motion for additur or for a new trial on the ground that the jury's award of damages against Rockdale was so clearly inadequate as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence. The plaintiffs contended that any new trial ordered by the trial court should be limited to the issue of damages. Rockdale opposed the motion, contending that the jury's damages award should not be disturbed and that any retrial could not be limited to the issue of damages because the case involved comparative negligence. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the plaintiffs' motion for additur or a new trial on damages, resulting in this appeal.

         At the outset, we note that the plaintiffs' motion seeking a new trial as a result of inadequate damages is governed by ...


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