Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion stemming from the tragic death of a Georgia nursing home resident who did not receive proper medical treatment for a bowel obstruction. According to the court’s opinion, the man was a resident at a nursing facility for approximately 11 years and was routinely treated by the nurses, physicians, and health care assistants employed by the facility. One evening, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) at the facility noticed that the man had brown vomit all over his clothes, and his stomach was distended. The LPN contacted the physician assistant, who told the LPN not to request a transfer to the hospital but ordered an x-ray. Since the end of her shift was approaching, the LPN became increasingly distressed and notified the nurse coming on duty and the director of nursing. However, no one examined the man until after his x-ray results arrived, which was after 10:00 a.m., at which point they transferred him to a hospital. He died later that night due to complications from his undiagnosed bowel obstruction.
The family of the man filed various claims against the facility, including a negligent staffing claim, and the jury apportioned fault among the facility and four other non-parties. The defendants appealed, arguing that the trial court incorrectly denied their motion for dismissal based on the negligent staffing issue. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were negligent in failing to staff a registered nurse over the nighttime shift and instead relying on the judgment of an LPN. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs alleged ordinary negligence, but negligent staffing falls under professional negligence, which requires expert testimony.
Under Georgia law, a plaintiff alleging professional negligence must provide an “affidavit of an expert competent to testify” regarding at least one negligent act or omission that the plaintiff is alleging. These experts must be qualified through their knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. However, ordinary negligence claims do not require expert testimony. Historically, Georgia courts have found that staffing decisions are generally business-related decisions and therefore do not sound in professional negligence. In this case, the court found that the director’s decision to only have a registered nurse on schedule during the day was a business-related decision and therefore did not require expert testimony. Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiff.