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Appellate court vacates $3 million wrongful death judgment against NGHS, doctor
Frances Mitchell

The Georgia Court of Appeals vacated a $3 million Hall County judgment against Northeast Georgia Health System and one of its doctors regarding a Jackson County woman’s death four days after surgery. The case has been remanded back to Hall County court for a potential new trial.

Hall County jury ruled in favor of the family of Frances “Suzie” Mitchell, 42, who went in for surgery May 3, 2016, at Northeast Georgia Medical Center to remove an ovarian mass.

The appellate court issued its ruling Thursday, March 24.

Mitchell’s mother, Shirley Metcalf, who acted as the executrix of her daughter’s estate, and Mitchell’s two adult children were the plaintiffs in the case. They were seeking to recover damages for wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering and medical expenses for medical malpractice and ordinary negligence.

Northeast Georgia Health System, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Northeast Georgia Physicians Group and Dr. Andrew Green were named as defendants in the case.

After the surgery, Mitchell came home and felt significant pain. She returned to the hospital via an ambulance, admitted and released the following day, according to the appellate court’s summary of the case.

Metcalf called Green’s office multiple times in the days after the surgery, as her daughter’s condition had not improved.

Mitchell died on May 7, 2016.

“An autopsy revealed that a small perforation or hole in her bowel had caused an abdominal infection, resulting in her death,” according to the appellate court. “The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy concluded that the perforation occurred during the surgery performed by Green.”

In their appeal, the defendants believed that Metcalf and Mitchell’s children did not have the authority to bring a wrongful death claim.

Under the Wrongful Death Act in Georgia, the surviving spouse is the first person in line to file a claim. Mitchell was married at the time, though the two were estranged. 

Georgia courts have allowed an exception in cases involving minor children, but it does not extend to adult children, the appellate court ruled.

“The plaintiffs were not entitled to recover for Mitchell’s wrongful death, and the trial court erred in submitting their wrongful death claim to the jury,” the court ruled.

The appellate judges said they could not determine what portion of the $3 million award related to the improper wrongful death claim, so the judges vacated the jury’s judgment and remanded the case back for a new trial on the “non-wrongful death claims.”

The appellate judges did, however, decide against the defendants on other issues.

The defense claimed that the trial judge should have granted a directed verdict on the negligence claim, meaning the jury would not rule on it.

The negligence claim focused on Green’s staff allegedly not properly recording and relaying information to Green from the post-surgery calls made by Mitchell’s family.

The defense has claimed that there is no link between this lack of documentation and Mitchell’s ultimate death.

“Based on the evidence, the jury was authorized to find that if the staff had properly recorded the calls, Mitchell would have been sent back to the hospital on (May 5, 2016), at which point her life was ‘salvageable’ and she had a 50 percent chance of survival.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Ken Lewis, said they are looking at the appellate options available to them before the case comes back to Hall County.

NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said the hospital could not comment on the case.

The defense’s attorney, M. Scott Bailey, was unavailable for an interview before press time Thursday.