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Georgia Jury Awards $4.48 Million In Case Involving Death After Spinal Fusion Surgery

After a six-day medical malpractice trial in Savanna, a jury took slightly over two hours to render a verdict, which led the defense to think that they had prevailed. However, the jury awarded a widow $4.475 million after her husband died one day after undergoing spinal fusion surgery. Tommy Rogers was age 54 when he died following the surgery in December 2014. The award contained $360,000 for pain and suffering and $15,000 to cover funeral costs. 

Tammy Rogers brought this wrongful death action in the Chatham County State Court.  The allocation of fault determined by the jury was 90% for the nursing staff at Tattnall Hospital and 10% for Dr. Joseph Hand, a hospitalist at the facility on the day Rogers died. A third physician named as a defendant was found to contribute no-fault in the case. 

One attorney stated that the cause of death was heavily debated, as the plaintiff claimed that the post-surgical bleeding could have been stopped if the surgeon has promptly returned to address the problem. The hospital argued that the cause was an unrelated heart attack. The hospital involved in Reidsville is part of Optim Medical Center, which has multiple facilities in southeastern Georgia, primarily specializing in orthopedics.

Spinal fusion surgery is a process used to relieve pain and pressure on the nerves by fusing vertebrae in the back. There are risks associated with these types of procedures, but most are moderately successful.  On the night of the procedure, Rogers complained of pain, trouble swallowing and breathing. Rogers was said to be bleeding excessively from the procedure. Several hours later a CT scan was ordered; however, Rogers became unconscious prior to the scan and he was unable to be resuscitated. The surgeon, Bradley Heiges, was reportedly on his way back to the hospital at the time of death. An autopsy later revealed that Rogers had a blood clot in his neck, which the defense claimed was not the cause of death.

The $360,000 portion of the award for pain & suffering is the adjusted maximum available according to Georgia law. These non-economic damages may include compensation for physical or emotional pain, anxiety, discomfort, loss of companionship and others. The state law explains that in a medical malpractice action against healthcare providers, the maximum that can be recovered in non-economic damages is $350,000. This cap applies regardless of if there are multiple defendants in the matter. 

In cases that involve multiple providers that are deemed vicariously liable, each provider may be individually liable up to the $350,000 limitation with a maximum total award of $700,000 among the facilities. Vicarious liability involves whether a hospital is actually liable for the actions of the surgeon. This often difficult determination depends on if the surgeon has an agency or employment relationship with the hospital, or rather is an independent entity beyond the hospital’s control.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 

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