Georgia Federal Court Dismisses Inmate Stillborn Birth Case

nurseryFor soon-to-be parents, quality prenatal care is of the utmost importance. Although finding quality prenatal health care providers is often a difficult undertaking for many people, the task can be even more difficult for women who find themselves behind bars during a pregnancy. Indeed, in a recent decision, Durden v. NaphCARE, Inc., a Georgia federal district court needed to address a medical malpractice claim brought by a female inmate who suffered a stillborn birth while serving time in a detention facility.

The plaintiff in this action learned that she was pregnant in November 2011, shortly before she was to report to Newton County Detention Center (“NCDC”) to serve a sentence for a state court conviction. The principal defendant in this action, NaphCARE, Inc., is a contractor hired by Newton County to provide healthcare and nursing services to inmates at NCDC. The plaintiff had her first appointment with the obstetrician responsible for her care during the course of her pregnancy and incarceration on January 17, 2012. During a visit with the obstetrician on March 13, the plaintiff was diagnosed with an incompetent cervix, a condition that if left untreated could result in a miscarriage or premature delivery. The plaintiff was admitted to Newton Medical Center, where she underwent a procedure involving the insertion of a cervical cerclage to treat the incompetent cervix.  The plaintiff was discharged two days thereafter and returned to the infirmary at NCDC. On the afternoon of the day of her return to the infirmary, the plaintiff began to complain of vaginal discharge. The obstetrician was contacted, and he instructed nurses at the infirmary to continue monitoring the plaintiff’s condition.

On the following morning, the plaintiff complained of severe pain and continued vaginal discharge. Infirmary employees and the plaintiff differ regarding the response the plaintiff received to her complaints. Nurses maintain that they again contacted the obstetrician, who told them to monitor the plaintiff’s condition, and that the plaintiff did not complain of additional pain during evaluations performed over the following two days. The plaintiff, however, contends that the nurse ignored her complaints and simply suggested she urinated on herself. On March 19, the plaintiff complained of lower back pain and continued vaginal discharge. The obstetrician was again contacted, and he instructed that the plaintiff be transported to his office for evaluation. Following this evaluation, the obstetrician admitted the plaintiff to Newton Medical Center for observation by the labor delivery unit. On the following day, the plaintiff was diagnosed with a cord prolapse, and thereafter she had a stillborn birth. After this tragic string of events, the plaintiff brought suit, alleging various forms of liability arising from the care she received. Following a motion to dismiss, only one claim remained: a medical malpractice claim against NaphCARE. At the close of discovery, NaphCARE moved for summary judgment on this remaining claim.

Under Georgia law, a plaintiff in a medical negligence case must prove the following:  (1) the existence of a legal duty arising from the doctor-patient relationship; (2) a failure to exercise the requisite skill and care, resulting in a breach of that duty; and (3) an injury caused, directly and proximately, by that failure to exercise requisite skill and care. Zwiren v. Thompson, 578 S.E.2d 862, 864 (Ga. 2003). There is a rebuttable presumption that medical care is performed in an ordinary manner, Cope v. Evans, 765 S.E.2d 40, 41 (Ga. Ct. App. 2014), and the law requires, therefore, that a plaintiff in a medical negligence action submit evidence from medical experts establishing the defendant’s failure to provide the requisite skill and care, Zwiren, 578 S.E.2d at 865.

In this case, NaphCARE argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiff neither provided expert testimony in opposition to the motion for summary judgment nor even identified the expert upon whose testimony she would rely to establish the lack of requisite skill. The plaintiff, however, argued that this requirement to provide expert testimony was met by the expert affidavit attached to her complaint.

Although this affidavit satisfied the plaintiff’s burden at the pleading stage, the court noted that it was insufficient to satisfy the plaintiff’s burden to withstand summary judgment. Indeed, the plaintiff did not identify the physician who prepared the affidavit as an expert who would ultimately provide trial testimony in her initial disclosure, and in interrogatory responses to the defendant, she stated that she “has not yet made any election as to what expert or experts, if any, she intends to use at any hearing or the trial of the case.” Since the plaintiff did not provide notice that the physician who prepared the expert affidavit intended to provide expert testimony at trial, the affidavit was insufficient to show a genuine issue of material fact as to the defendant’s lack of requisite skill at trial. Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that she identified a different physician in informal correspondence with the defendant. However, the plaintiff did not provide any testimony from this physician attesting to the defendant’s failure to exercise the requisite care. Accordingly, since the record was bereft of evidence indicating the defendant’s failure to exercise the requisite skill and care, the court found that the defendant was entitled to summary judgment on the medical negligence claim.

Notwithstanding the severity of the loss at the heart of this case, a severe injury does not absolve a plaintiff of meeting her burden of proof. Indeed, anyone with a viable claim must be prepared to propound all the evidence necessary to establish liability, and those with a potential claim should consider finding experienced counsel to aid them in this task. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law are experienced in Georgia medical malpractice law and are prepared to help those who may have a viable claim. If you’ve recently been harmed in a possible case of medical negligence and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us to schedule a free case evaluation.

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