Chief Justice P. Harris Hines Chief Justice P. Harris Hines, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a new claim for negligence against a hospital could be added to a medical malpractice suit, even though the nursing staff’s actions involved in a patient’s injury were not included in the original complaint and the two-year limit to file suit had passed.

The unanimous opinion said the new claim against the hospital “related back” to the original complaint and upheld a Georgia Court of Appeals ruling allowing Atlanta Medical Center to be named in the amended complaint.

A Fulton County judge had denied the plaintiff’s efforts to add new claims against the hospital after her lawyers discovered the nursing personnel may have violated hospital rules.

Among those arguing to keep the new claim out was former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, now with Smith Gambrell & Russell, along with firm partner Edward Wasmuth Jr. and Huff Powell & Bailey partner Brian Mathis.

Mathis said his team did not have permission to discuss the ruling Monday afternoon. 

The plaintiff was represented by Robin Loeb and Anne Coolidge-Kaplan of Garland Samuel & Loeb.

The opinion “says it all,” Loeb said.

“It is now clear that where the defendants have notice from the beginning that the claim is based on a series of events leading to an injury, the claim will relate back, even if the new claim is for vicarious liability arising from the conduct of someone different than the individuals on whose conduct the original imputed liability claim was based,” said Loeb via email.

“We felt confident the court would rule this way and are happy for our client that we can return to the trial court with all of the counts in tow,” she said.

As detailed in the appellate rulings, the case began in 2012 when Lorrine Thomas was in an auto accident. Paramedics placed a cervical collar, or “C-collar,” on her neck, strapped her to backboard and took her to Atlanta Medical Center near downtown Atlanta.     

Dr. Robin Lowman ordered a cervical CT scan, which was interpreted by another doctor, Clifford Grossman, the court papers said.

Grossman didn’t find any signs of a fracture or misaligned vertebrae, and Thomas was placed in a wheelchair and—after “hospital personnel” removed the C-collar—she was discharged about four hours after being admitted.

Thomas had been medicated, and as she sat slumped in the wheelchair waiting for her brother to come pick her up she lost consciousness and was taken back to the emergency room.

A cervical MRI revealed, according to the appellate record, that Thomas did, in fact, have a spine fracture that “became dislocated and resulted in compression of the spinal cord, neurological damage, and quadriplegia.”

Nursing personnel were ordered to immediately place a C-collar back on Thomas.   

Shortly before the two-year statute of limits had expired, Thomas sued Lowman, Grossman and the Atlanta Medical Center’s parent company, Tenet Health System,  for medical malpractice.

During discovery, Thomas’ lawyers learned of a hospital rule barring anyone except a doctor from removing a C-collar, and they filed an amended complaint seeking to hold the hospital responsible for the negligence of the nurse who removed the collar under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

The hospital argued that the new claim was barred by the statute of limitations, and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey Jr. agreed, dismissing that count of the amended complaint.

Thomas appealed, and last year the Court of Appeals ruled that the dismissed count dealt arose from “the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth in the original complaint,” and that it could go forward.

In upholding the Court of Appeals’ opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines wrote that Georgia law and precedent holds that the relevant section of Georgia’s Civil Practice Act Is to be “liberally construed in favor of allowing amendments,” wrote Hines.

That section of the act says that, whenever “the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arises out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, the amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading.”

“The new imputed liability claim in Thomas’s second amended complaint alleged that this same removal of the C-collar was the negligent act of a hospital nursing employee in violation of a hospital policy,” Hines wrote.

The conduct targeted in the amended complaint “occurred at the same time as certain facts in the original complaint, near the end of the three and-a-half hour time frame of the treatment preceding the alleged injury. Thus, the relevant factual allegations were quite close in time, to say the least. They also occurred at the exact same location, and they involved the same general subject matter, i.e., the negligent treatment of Thomas’s dangerously unstable spine,” he said.

“Finally, the allegations were part of the same events that led up to the same ultimate injury for which Thomas is seeking damages.”

“The fact that Thomas’s second amended complaint invoked a legal theory, the imputed simple negligence of the hospital nurse who removed the C-collar, that was not in the original complaint does not prevent this new claim from relating back,” Harris wrote.

Thus, he said, “that new claim is not barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitation.”