I don’t plan to discuss only trials that medical malpractice victims have won. Justice is a rare commodity, I believe, so I would give the wrong impression if I only presented the winners. Because medical malpractice cases are so expensive to bring to trial, I have to turn down a lot of meritorious cases, for example, before I can take one that even makes economic sense. Sometimes I have to turn down a case that might make economic sense, but the courthouse where the case would be tried has a history of turning a cold shoulder to patients who have been injured by their doctors.
Although I have no first hand information about the malpractice trial I am about to describe, I do know what it means to try a plaintiff’s case in Gwinnett County, Georgia. For readers not from the Atlanta area, Gwinnett is a large, vibrant, suburban county with mostly middle and upper middle class residents, where median household income, homeownership and college education are well above the average in Georgia. Although Gwinnett has more than the average number of Hispanics, the racial breakdown is otherwise similar to the rest of the state. Early in my legal career, I had a client who was rear-ended in Gwinnett County and incurred some $30,000 in medical bills as a result. The case went to trial and I enlisted a trusted colleague with decades of trial experience to be lead counsel. I was the second chair, getting to do some of the direct examinations of witnesses, but my colleague did the heavy lifting giving the opening statement, the client’s direct examination, all the cross examinations and the closing statements. The jury was out for less than an hour. We lost. How can you lose a rear-end-collision case you ask? It’s easy in Gwinnett. I had been warned by experienced lawyers before I took this case, but I had to learn my lesson the hard way and at my personal expense. I’ve never brought another case in Gwinnett.
Two years ago a medical malpractice case was tried in Gwinnett County that certainly looked like the real McCoy. Troy Moon was a 47-year-old real estate agent with a wife and two kids. He made about $85,000 a year, but he drank too much. One morning he developed pain in his belly and went to Gwinnett Medical Center; ten days later he was dead of pancreatitis.
Mr. Moon went to the emergency room and was sent home. He returned to the emergency room later that day with worsening pain and had a CT scan of his abdomen. The doctor diagnosed pancreatitis, but sent Moon home again with instructions to drink plenty of fluids and see a gastroenterologist the following morning. The next day, the gastroenterologist sent Moon back to the emergency room, where he was admitted to the ICU. But it was degringolade from there. Moon never made it out of the ICU. The summary of this case that I read in the Georgia Trial Reporter did not mention whether an autopsy had been performed. From a strategic standpoint, I usually demand an autopsy in a medical malpractice case to avoid the defense attorney raising a confusing argument about the cause of death.
Every medical student knows that you take your time before feeding patients with pancreatitis. Feeding them too early typically causes the disease to get worse. As a general statement, you put the patient on intravenous feeding until you are quite sure that re-feeding will cause no harm. Telling an alcoholic patient with severe abdominal pain and a swollen pancreas on CT scan to drink plenty of fluids sounds negligent to me. But alas, this Gwinnett jury took only an hour and a half to find for the defendant.