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Trabue v. Atlanta Women's Specialists, LLC

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

March 7, 2019

TRABUE et al.
v.
ATLANTA WOMEN'S SPECIALISTS, LLC et al. ANGUS
v.
TRABUE et al. ATLANTA WOMEN'S SPECIALISTS, LLC
v.
TRABUE et al. ANGUS
v.
TRABUE et al. TRABUE et al.
v.
ANGUS.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          DOYLE, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Keith Trabue, individually and as guardian of his wife, Shannon Maria Trabue, and Advocacy Trust of Tennessee, LLC, as her conservator, filed a renewal medical malpractice action in Fulton County State Court against Atlanta Women's Specialists, LLC ("AWS"), and Dr. Stanley R. Angus after Shannon suffered a catastrophic brain injury four days after giving birth. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $46 million. The defendants moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court erred (1) by permitting evidence of the alleged negligence of Dr. Rebecca Simonsen, a non-party physician also employed by AWS, because claims against AWS for her actions were not raised and were barred by the statutes of limitation and repose; and (2) by failing to require the jury to apportion fault between Dr. Angus and AWS on behalf of Dr. Simonsen in accordance with OCGA § 51-12-33 (b). The trial court rejected the former claim but granted a new trial on the limited issue of the allocation of fault between the party defendants based on Dr. Simonsen's negligence, instructing that "[t]he jury's prior findings on liability and its calculation of damages shall remain intact upon the trial as to apportionment." This Court granted the parties' interlocutory applications, and these appeals of that order followed.[1] For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, reverse in part, vacated in part, and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         We review de novo the grant of a motion for new trial on special grounds involving a question of law, and we will "reverse if the trial court committed legal error."[2]

         So viewed, the record shows that on August 21, 2009, 38-year-old Shannon was admitted to Northside Hospital for induction of labor due to hypertension and gave birth via cesarean section. The child was delivered without complications by Dr. Juanita Wyatt-Hathaway. Shannon's blood pressure remained persistently elevated, and Dr. Wyatt-Hathaway prescribed an infusion of magnesium sulfate and a loading dose of intravenous fluids, and she later prescribed Labetalol and discontinued the magnesium sulfate. Dr. Simonsen then took over Shannon's care after being informed of her recent elevated blood pressure, shortness of breath, decreased urinary output, and pulse oximetry of 95 percent. Dr. Angus then assumed control of Shannon's care, and he evaluated her and increased the Labetalol. At 5:00 p.m. on August 25, 2009, Dr. Angus ordered the insertion of an intravenous line, lab tests, and a spiral CT scan to rule out a pulmonary embolism. En route to the CT scan, Shannon sustained a respiratory arrest, which progressed to a full cardiopulmonary arrest. She coded at 5:43 p.m., and resuscitation efforts commenced. A subsequent chest x-ray revealed pulmonary edema. Consequently, Shannon suffered a hypoxic brain injury and has been rendered totally disabled.

         On August 18, 2011, the plaintiffs filed a medical malpractice action against AWS and Dr. Angus, alleging vicarious liability against AWS and the negligence of Dr. Angus. The complaint alleges that Drs. Angus, Wyatt-Hathaway, and Simonsen were agents of AWS, acting within the scope of their agency when the proximately caused Shannon's injuries, so that their wrongful acts and omissions are imputed to AWS, which is vicariously liable for their acts and omissions. The plaintiffs also noted therein that they reserved the right to add Drs. Wyatt-Hathaway and Simonsen as party defendants if AWS or Dr. Angus alleged that they contributed to Shannon's injuries. The plaintiffs attached an OCGA § 9-11-9.1 expert affidavit by Dr. Paul Gatewood, who averred that the care and treatment rendered by Dr. Angus fell below the standard of care required. Dr. Gatewood offered no opinion as to the negligence of the other physicians involved in Shannon's care.

         On May 7, 2014, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the case against Dr. Angus and AWS; on August 15, 2014, they filed a renewal action. The second complaint mirrored the first, with the exception of an additional expert affidavit from Dr. Eric Lichter, which essentially tracked that of Dr. Gatewood except that Dr. Lichter incorporated by reference the opinions he gave in his deposition in the first case.[3]During Dr. Lichter's deposition, he offered standard of care criticisms against the nurses and Drs. Wyatt-Hathaway, Simonsen, and Angus. His allegations of negligence in his affidavit, however, pertained only to Dr. Angus.

         The parties filed a consolidated pretrial order in the case on July 20, 2016. In the plaintiffs' outline of the case, they expressly stated that Dr. Simonsen's negligence, along with that of Dr. Angus, caused Shannon's injuries. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that Dr. Simonsen took over Shannon's care at 8:00 a.m. on August 25, 2009, but saw Shannon only once during the shift at 10:30 p.m., despite several calls from nurses advising of serious problems with Shannon's condition, which put Shannon at a foreseeable risk of pulmonary edema and cardiopulmonary complications. The plaintiffs listed the question of Dr. Simonsen's negligence as one for jury determination, specifying 41 allegations of negligence against her in addition to those against the named defendants, Dr. Angus and AWS.

         On August 12, 2016, the defendants filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence or argument criticizing Dr. Simonsen and anyone other than Dr. Angus, arguing that because no claim has been asserted based on the conduct of Dr. Simonsen, criticisms of her care should be excluded. On September 12, 2016, the plaintiffs moved to amend the pretrial order to file Dr. Lichter's amended and supplemental affidavit, which included allegations of negligence against Dr. Simonsen. The plaintiffs pointed out that two paragraphs of the original and refiled complaint alleged that Dr. Simonsen was an agent and employee of AWS at all applicable times and that AWS was liable for injuries cased by her wrongful acts and omissions; that the factual allegations included Dr. Simonsen's role in Shannon's treatment; that the defendants did not object to the original or renewed affidavits of Dr. Lichter; and that the defendants were on notice of the imputed liability claim, evidenced by their second affirmative defense, which stated that neither Dr. Angus nor any other agent or employee violated the applicable standard of care but rather exceeded it. The defendants opposed the motion and moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that the amended affidavit was barred by the statute of limitations and therefore did not relate back to the original complaint.

         The trial court denied the defendants' motions in limine with regard to evidence criticizing Dr. Simonsen and motions for partial summary judgment, and it granted the plaintiffs' motion to amend the pretrial order to file Dr. Lichter's amended affidavit. During the two-week trial, the defendants moved for a directed verdict on the same grounds raised in their partial summary judgment motion, and the trial court denied the motion. After the close of the evidence, the defendants asked the court to apportion damages pursuant to OCGA § 51-12-33 (b).[4]

         The jury entered its verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on a special verdict form, which asked the following: "Was the negligence of any of Defendant Atlanta Women Specialists' physician employees a contributing proximate cause of the injury to Shannon Trabue? If so, place an X in the blank before each physician employee whose negligence was a proximate cause of her injury." The physician employees listed were Drs. Angus and Simonsen. The jury answered "yes" and placed an X next to both physicians' names. The jury awarded economic loss damages of almost $10 million and awarded $18 million compensatory damages to each plaintiff. The trial court then entered the judgment on the verdict.

         On April 7, 2017, the defendant moved for a new trial, alleging, among other things, that the trial court erred by failing to require the jury to apportion fault between Dr. Angus and AWS on behalf of Dr. Simonsen pursuant to OCGA § 51-12-33 (b) and by permitting evidence of the alleged negligence of Dr. Simonsen because claims against her were not raised in the complaints and were barred by the statutes of limitation and repose. The plaintiffs moved to amend the judgment to add attorney fees, litigation expenses, and pre-judgment interest under OCGA §§ 9-11-68 and 51-12-14. After considering the various briefs filed by the parties, the trial court denied the motion for new trial on all grounds except its failure to require the jury to apportion fault, ordering a new trial as to apportionment only. It denied the plaintiffs' motion to amend the judgment as premature, given its ruling granting a new trial as to apportionment. The trial court certified its order on the motion for new trial for immediate review, this Court granted the defendants' interlocutory applications, and these appeals followed.

         Case Nos. A18A1552, A18A1553, and A18A1554

         1. AWS's vicarious liability based on Dr. Simonsen. The defendants contend that the trial court erred by permitting the jury to consider whether Dr. Simonsen's negligence was a contributing proximate cause of injury to Shannon. This enumeration is without merit.

         (a) First, the defendants argue that the plaintiffs failed to timely and properly plead a vicarious liability claim against AWS for Dr. Simonsen's negligence. We disagree.

         In the initial complaint filed in 2011, the plaintiffs described in detail the care provided by Shannon's doctors, including Dr. Simonsen. In Count 1, titled "Claim for Vicarious Liability as to Defendant AWS," the plaintiffs state:

37.At all times applicable to this [c]omplaint, . . . Rebecca Simonsen, M.D. [was] the actual, apparent, or ostensible agent[] or employee[] of . . . AWS, acting within the scope of [her] agency or employment, in pursuit of . . . AWS's business so that [her] wrongful acts and omissions are imputed to . . . AWS[, ] and . . . AWS is subject to liability for injuries and harm proximately caused by [her] wrongful acts or omissions.
38.Defendant AWS and Dr. . . . Simonsen are hereby put on notice, by copy of this complaint, that in the event [any of the defendants] alleges that the actions of . . . Dr. Simonsen, or any other person acting within the scope of his/her agency or employment with . . . AWS, proximately or legally caused or contributed to the injuries suffered by [Shannon], [the plaintiffs] reserve[] the right to add said doctor as a defendant herein.

         The expert affidavit attached to the original complaint did not include any opinion regarding Dr. Simonsen's care of Shannon. The 2015 renewal complaint set forth the same factual and legal assertions as to Dr. Simonsen, and the expert affidavit filed therewith incorporated by reference the opinions he gave in his deposition in the original action, which opinions included standard of care criticisms of Dr. Simonsen.

         In their outline of the case in the consolidated pretrial order, the plaintiffs stated that Dr. Simonsen's negligence caused Shannon's injuries, listing 41 specific allegations of negligence. They also indicated that whether Dr. Simonsen was negligent and whether her negligence was a proximate cause of Shannon's injuries were issues for determination by the jury. The plaintiffs then, with the permission of the trial court, amended the ...


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