Home Medical Malpractice ‘Beginning to Pick Up’: Medical-Malpractice Litigation Surges Back From COVID-19 Shutdowns

‘Beginning to Pick Up’: Medical-Malpractice Litigation Surges Back From COVID-19 Shutdowns

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Medical-malpractice lawyers told the Daily Report in recent conversations that the ice is breaking after a deep freeze on litigation activity brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“In the medical-malpractice world, for me and some of my friends, it truly was like a faucet was turned off” at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, said Marc Howard of Pope & Howard, whose partner is Geoffrey Pope. For med mal especially, no trial dates mean no incentive for the defense to settle cases in progress, he said.

“For Geoff and me, we had three of our best years in our firm’s history right before COVID. And then it was just nothing for over a year,” Howard said. “Of course, we’ve still got all our expenses.”

A bit of a thaw started in the middle of last year when courts resumed jury trials—slowly and carefully with COVID-19 protocols in place. But it was a start-and-stop situation, as variants fueled more virus cases.

Lately, though, the COVID cases have dropped and new trial dates have been set, encouraging settlement negotiations like nothing else can, plaintiff lawyers said. As Howard put it, “I think things are really beginning to pick up.”

For evidence, look no further than a recent trial in Gwinnett County State Court. The jury awarded a total of $15.3 million on March 9 for the death of Lucille Dubose. Her daughter, Michelle McKinney, sued Gwinnett Operations, Life Care Center of Lawrenceville and parent company Life Care Centers of America. The complaint alleged Dubose, 77, had checked in Nov. 4, 2016, for short-term rehabilitation, but died a month later after suffering from severe dehydration and infection caused by untreated pressure wounds. The jury awarded $900,000 in punitive damages against Life Care Center of Lawrenceville and $8.27 million in punitive damages against Life Care Centers of America.

Judge Shawn Bratton reduced the award to $6.4 million on March 18 to comply with Georgia’s $250,000 punitive damages cap.

Lance Lourie (from left), Stephen Chance and Xavier Carter of Watkins, Lourie, Roll & Chance. (Courtesy photo)

“We plan to challenge the constitutionality of the cap,” Stephen Chance of Watkins, Lourie, Roll & Chance told the Daily Report Wednesday. He represents McKinney and tried the case with Lance Lourie and Xavier Carter of Watkins, Lourie, Roll & Chance. Andrew King of their firm and Lindsay Forlines of Forlines Law assisted them.

Defense attorneys Teresa Pike Tomlinson, Jeffery Saxby and Erin Lawson Coia of Hall Booth Smith said they plan to appeal the verdict, with the help of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears and her team at Smith Gambrell Russell.

Chance said Watkins, Lourie, Roll & Chance now has trial dates set in several other cases. “We expect a lot of activity coming up,” he said.

Forlines said she plans to try another case with Carter of Watkins, Lourie, Roll & Chance in May. That case also is on the Gwinnett County State Court calendar. It involves a resident in a private-pay assisted living facility, Forlines said.

Forlines started her own firm just a few months before the pandemic began. She said she has maintained a busy practice and kept settlements on track. But the trial in May will be her first as a med-mal plaintiffs attorney.

Lindsay A. Forlines, Attorney of Forlines Law. Courtesy photo Lindsay A. Forlines of Forlines Law. (Courtesy photo)

She still has the perspective of the defense side. She previously worked with Paul Weathington of the Weathington Firm, one of the busiest medical-malpractice defense firms in Georgia. She said some of her upcoming trial dates will pit her against him.

“It sounds good in theory for someone being sued to let things sit. But it’s not good for anybody,” Forlines said. “Doctors and nurses being sued don’t want this hanging over their heads.”

So returning to a brisk trial schedule and working through the backlog should help everyone, she said.

“Thankfully, things are opening back up, and we are able to get in there and try our cases,” Forlines said. “I think we’re very close to saying we’re back full force.”

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