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Georgia Supreme Court Affirms Practice Group is Vicariously Liable for Unnamed Doctor – Health Law and Regulation Blog Post by Eric Frisch

Recent Health Law and Regulation Update Blog post by Eric Frisch.

The Georgia Supreme Court has affirmed that the plaintiffs in a medical malpractice case could hold a practice group vicariously liable for the alleged malpractice of one of its employed physicians who was not named in the lawsuit. In the case of Atlanta Women’s Specialists, LLC v. Trabue, Shannon Trabue suffered a brain injury as a result of a cardiac arrest in the days after giving birth. Ms. Trabue was treated by two physicians – Dr. Angus and Dr. Simonsen – both of whom were employees of Atlanta Women’s Specialists (“AWS”).

Plaintiffs sued Dr. Angus and AWS, but included allegations in the Complaint that AWS was vicariously liable for both Dr. Angus and Dr. Simonsen. Dr. Simonsen was not a separately named party in the complaint. At trial, defendants’ counsel asked the trial court to instruct the jury on apportionment of damages between Dr. Angus and Dr. Simonsen, as an unnamed party. Defendants did not file a notice of non-party at fault within the statutory time period. The trial court denied the motion. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiffs and found that both Dr. Angus and Dr. Simonsen were at fault. Defendants appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision. First, the Supreme Court held that plaintiffs adequately pled AWS’ vicarious liability for Dr. Simonsen. In so doing, the Court affirmed the general rule that a “plaintiff need not specifically name in the complaint each physician-employee whose acts or omissions form a basis for the claim of vicarious liability against” the employer. The Court rejected the argument that the affirmative statement in the complaint that Dr. Angus was directly liable excluded any allegation that Dr. Simonsen was also liable under notice pleading.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s ruling that AWS could not seek apportionment by the jury for Dr. Simonsen’s negligence. Notably, the Court seemed to side-step the critical question – whether it would have been appropriate at all to have the jury apportion between Dr. Angus and his co-employee – by holding that defendants’ failure to give statutory notice was fatal. To this end, the Court held that “a defendant employee like Dr. Angus who wants to reduce a potential damages award against him by having the jury apportion damages between him and his defendant employer based on the fault of a nonparty co-employee must comply with the requirements of subsection (d).”

Justice Bethel dissented (a rarity in Georgia jurisprudence as of late) and Justice Warren concurred fully in parts 1 and 2 and in the judgment only in part 3. In his dissent, Justice Bethel wrote that AWS should have been permitted to apportionment with Dr. Angus based on subsection (2) of O.C.G.A. §51-12-33. That subsection reads “in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any, shall … apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person.” The majority held that subsection (b) is not a standalone provision, but must be read in conjunction with the notice provision of subsection (d). Justice Bethel disagreed, writing that the hole in the majority’s reasoning is that it essentially imposes joint and several liability on AWS and Dr. Angus.

Take-home: This is an important case for all parties. On the defense side, the outcome can be avoided by filing a notice of non-party at fault if any other, unnamed employee might also have contributed to the outcome. On the plaintiff side, more employees will be named to avoid the potential hole of a non-party at fault. We are not addressing the potential conflicts of interest, which are very fact specific.

The case is Atlanta Women’s Specialists, LLC v. Trabue, ___ S.E.2d ___ 2020 WL 5752376 (Ga.Sup.Ct. Sept. 28, 2020).

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