Last month the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an opinion addressing the standard of review that courts should use when hearing appeals regarding special and general damages. This Georgia medical malpractice lawsuit arose after a woman claimed she became permanently and totally disabled following the care she received at an emergency room. The woman’s husband took her to the hospital, where she complained of pain associated with a severe headache, dehydration, diarrhea, and nausea. The triage nurse did not note the woman’s initial headache symptoms, but instead chose a charting template for digestive illnesses. The woman was diagnosed with high blood pressure and was told to visit her primary care doctor that week for follow-up. Later that week, the woman suffered an insurgency in her symptoms, and a CT scan showed that she had a blood clot and had suffered several strokes. Despite several surgeries, the woman entered a vegetative state.
The woman’s husband filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital, alleging that they negligently failed to diagnose her with a ruptured aneurysm. The husband argued that the woman would have had a more promising outcome if they had adequately diagnosed and treated her for her blood clot. The jury apportioned fault amongst the parties and awarded the plaintiffs with their requested damages for past medical expenses but awarded zero damages for pain and suffering, lost wages, and future expenses. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial arguing that the zero-sum award was inadequate and against the preponderance of the evidence. The defendants countered that the award should not face modification, and it was inappropriate to limit a new trial to only the issue of damages. The appeals court reversed the court’s denial of the motion and ordered a retrial, finding that the jury’s award was inadequate under the preponderance of the evidence. The defendants appealed, arguing that the preponderance of evidence standard was erroneous.
Under Georgia law, damages are divided into three distinct categories, special, general, and punitive damages. Special damages are losses that are easily quantifiable and flow from the tortious act. Special damages include things such as hospital bills, property damage, and lost wages. General damages are more difficult to quantify and cover losses related to permanent changes and human suffering. These include damages related to mental anguish, disfigurement, and loss of companionship. Unlike special and general damages, punitive damages are designed solely to punish the defendant and deter them from engaging in similar conduct in the future.