Although medical mistakes resulting from faulty equipment or inadvertent human errors are not particularly uncommon, many do not expect intentional malfeasance on the part of medical professionals. However, even if a situation is not anticipated, it certainly does not mean it’s impossible. Indeed, in a recent decision, Jefferson v. Houston Hosps., Inc., the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed an interesting situation regarding the liability of a medical facility for its employee’s willful forgery of patients’ mammography results.
Jefferson concerned the forgery of three patients’ mammography results at a medical facility in Houston County, Georgia. All three patients received mammograms at the facility in 2009, and all three mammograms were performed by the same mammography technologist. Although the technologist was supposed to transfer mammography images to a radiologist for interpretation, the technologist testified that she used passwords she learned through her training duties to enter the system and forge mammogram results. The technologist admitted that she understood this conduct to be beyond the scope of her duties, and she ultimately pled guilty to criminal charges associated with this conduct. After the fraud was discovered, the medical facility issued a press release stating that an employee had processed a number of mammogram results without procuring a reading from a radiologist and instructed patients to receive new mammograms. All three plaintiffs returned for new mammograms, all of which were found to be normal. The plaintiffs then brought suit against the various defendants, asserting claims for, inter alia, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, negligence, negligence per se, and conversion. The hospital ultimately moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, finding that: (1) the technologist did not act within the scope of her duties, as is necessary for the hospital to be vicariously liable for the technologist’s conduct; (2) the plaintiffs failed to adduce sufficient evidence to support a finding of intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (3) none of the plaintiffs suffered actual damages as a result of the technologist’s conduct. Following the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, all the plaintiffs appealed.
Although the technologist’s conduct was patently reprehensible, the Court of Appeals agreed that the plaintiffs’ claims should nevertheless fail as a matter of law. First, the Court of Appeals agreed that since the technologist was acting beyond the scope of her duties, the hospital could not be liable for the technologist’s actions. Indeed, during her deposition, the technologist admitted she was not authorized to assess mammography files, much less forge results. In addition, she admitted that she was not acting in her employer’s interest but instead engaged in this conduct for her own convenience because she had failed to promptly send scans to radiologists for processing and thus had a backlog. Second, the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs’ intentional infliction of emotional distress claims also failed because there was insufficient evidence of outrageous conduct on the part of the hospital. Indeed, although the technologist’s conduct was arguably quite outrageous, this conduct could not be imputed to the hospital, and there was a lack of evidence showing the hospital’s conduct following the discovery of the forgeries to be outrageous. Furthermore, the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim otherwise failed because none of the plaintiffs complained of “severe” symptoms or sought treatment for the anxiety caused by this incident. See, e.g., Jones v. Warner, 301 Ga. App. 39, 43 (2009) (concluding that “anxiety, nervousness, sleeplessness, and irritability,” without medical or psychiatric intervention, was insufficiently severe as a matter of law).
Finally, the plaintiffs’ remaining claims all required a showing of actual damages, which the Court of Appeals found the evidence in the record to not support. As noted above, none of the plaintiffs in fact had breast cancer, and therefore they could not show a physical injury attributable to negligence. In addition, the plaintiffs did not suffer monetary losses because the hospital reimbursed the plaintiff’s insurance companies for the fraudulently performed mammograms and did not bill the insurance companies for the costs of the replacement mammograms. Finally, recovery for emotional harm is generally not allowed in the absence of physical injury or pecuniary loss. See, e.g., Ryckeley v. Callaway, 261 Ga. 828, 829 (1992) (explaining that “[i]f [emotional harm] is not accompanied by physical injury or pecuniary loss, recovery is allowed only if the conduct . . . was ‘malicious, willful, or wanton.’” (citations omitted)). Since the employee’s conduct could not be imputed to the hospital, and the record did not otherwise support a finding that the hospital’s conduct was malicious, willful, or wanton, the Court of Appeals concluded the plaintiffs did not have recoverable emotional injuries. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court properly granted summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims.
Although the plaintiffs in this case did not, fortunately, suffer a misdiagnosis as a result of the employee’s actions, the result could have been far more grave. Indeed, although many medical professionals perform their jobs with the utmost care, errors do happen, and those harmed as a result of possible negligence on the part of a medical professional should consider finding experienced counsel to help them navigate the legal system. The Atlanta personal injury and wrongful death attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have experience with medical negligence claims, and they are prepared to help with possibly meritorious claim. If you believe you may have suffered an injury as a result of possible negligence, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.