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Gainesville hospital found liable in lawsuit
Plaintiff sought $4 million for injuries; jury gives her $6,980
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It was a legal victory more bitter than sweet.

A woman who was severely injured after falling down a wet, darkened, concrete stairwell outside Northeast Georgia Medical Center won her lawsuit against the hospital Friday, but jurors awarded her just $6,980 in medical expenses, a fraction of the $4 million figure that was sought.

"I’m not disappointed in that verdict," said Tom Cole, an attorney for the hospital, after it was found liable in the April 22, 2006, slip and fall of 45-year-old Lynn Garner. "I’m glad they saw fit to give her some money. We’re fine with that."

Plaintiff’s attorney Wyc Orr said simply, "We’ll evaluate this verdict and see where we go from here."

According to court documents, Garner was at the hospital late at night to be with a family member whose daughter was receiving emergency treatment. At about 2 a.m., she stepped outside of the emergency room entrance to smoke a cigarette. She and another woman turned to the right of the entrance and went down a sidewalk to an area they thought was a designated smoking area.

Garner fell down an unmarked, unlit stairwell that adjoined the sidewalk near a turn. The stairwell was a fire escape for the hospital’s Walters Auditorium.

Garner suffered a fractured arm, fractured knee and contusions to the face and back in the fall. In court documents, Garner contends she lost virtually all function and mobility in her left arm and suffers from persistent, chronic pain.

Garner’s attorneys maintained that the stairwell was an unreasonably dangerous condition of which the hospital should have been aware. It was later torn down during an extensive hospital construction project.

Attorneys for the hospital countered in court documents that Garner’s fall was a result of her failure to exercise reasonable care for her own safety, and noted that the fall occurred when she was trying to find a place to smoke "in violation of (the hospital’s) tobacco-free campus policy."

Attorneys for the hospital also questioned whether Garner’s injuries and disabilities were the result of "failure to follow medical recommendations" or due to pre-existing conditions.

The civil trial in Hall County Superior Court lasted a week. A jury of eight women and four men spent about five hours deliberating the case before returning with a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and awarded the relatively small sum for "medication and pain management for one year."