New Case Clarifies Emergency Room Standard in Georgia: What Level of Care are Patients Entitled To?

If you or a family member go to an Emergency Room in Georgia, what level of care do you expect to receive?  Some lawyers for doctors and hospitals say that you are only entitled to receive something called “slight care” which is lower than the historical standard of “ordinary care” or reasonable care” that we’ve operated under for many years in Georgia medical malpractice cases.

This lowering of the standard of care was done without a lot of public participation, and my guess is that most folks who go to the E.R.- or take their children or family members there – expect to receive a reasonable level of care.  Nonetheless, in 2005 a new law was passed in Georgia that attempted to lower the standard of care to the level of “slight care” in ERs, at least in some circumstances.  The truth of the matter is that this is a terrible law, and puts our families at greater risk when we go to ERs.  Seems to me that we deserve better care than that.

The law in question generally says that the “slight care” standard – also known as “gross negligence” ( a doctor is grossly negligent when he does not use slight care, these are two sides of the same coin) – only applies to patients who are not stable.  The idea seems to be that if a patient is stable, then that patient is entitled to the same care they would get if they went to a regular doctor’s office or received other types of medical care in a non-emergency situation.  In other words, emergency room doctors should only get the benefit of this low standard of care when there is a real emergency and little time for reflection or for getting a complete history of the patient.

But few cases had addressed this issue of stability.  A new case has done that and made it clear that a jury will often have to decide if a patient is stable, thus triggering application of the ordinary negligence standard.  In Bonds v. Nesbitt, 13 FCDR 1342, Case Number A13A0348the Court made this rather clear:

The statute provides that a doctor’s conduct becomes subject to the more rigorous ordinary negligence standard of care rather than the gross negligence standard when the patient’s condition improves, or at least stabilizes. In other words, the statute provides that the condition of the patient controls, not the opinion of the physician. If a physician or health care provider mistakenly concludes that a patient has become “stabilized” and “capable of receiving medical treatment as a nonemergency patient” and therefore stops providing emergency care to that patient—notwithstanding that the patient still needs emergency care—and if the patient is injured or killed as a result of the withdrawal of emergency care, the physician or health care provider is entitled to claim the protection of the gross negligence standard.

The Court went on to say that in the context of the  factual circumstances of the Bonds’s case “that claim must be made to the jury.”  This case is very important because it pays close attention to the actual words of the statute, and clarifies that the issue of stability is an issue to be determined by the jury, at least in cases where there are facts in dispute about it.