ATHENS, Ga. — A court appeal by two doctors will determine whether physicians on the faculty of Georgia Regents University are professionally liable for malpractice or protected from lawsuits by being state employees.
Georgia Supreme Court justices heard attorneys plead their case Wednesday during a hearing at the University of Georgia Law School in front of 120 students and professors. The court usually holds one day of arguments outside of chambers to give the public and students the chance to see it in action.
The case involves the treatment of a 5-day-old infant, who was operated on in 2005 for a life-threatening twisting of the intestine. The child is now 9 and brain damaged as a result of a period without oxygen, according to the suit against neonatalogist Prem Singh Shekhawat and anesthesiologist Wayne Mathews Jr.
Both physicians say they are immune from lawsuits because of their faculty status. Attorneys for the boy’s parents convinced the Georgia Court of Appeals that even though the two are employed by the University System of Georgia, physicians’ duty to their patients trumps their employee immunity.
Complicating the case is the relationship of MCG Health Inc. and Physicians Practice Group, two nonprofit corporations created by the university system. The doctors’ attorney, Annarita Busbee, argued that the companies merely provide support functions for the physicians, who are salaried employees of the state.
The family’s attorney, Josh Wages, say the corporations were created to protect taxpayers, leaving the doctors liable for malpractice.
“It’s a private corporation. It has the ability to sue and be sued,” he said.
Justice Harold Melton disagreed.
“They are tied to the state. They cannot be divorced from the state,” he said.
In an earlier case, the court ruled that the faculty of the state’s medical school can be sued by a patient seen in a private practice.
Busbee said teaching doctors are required to take on risky patients to demonstrate techniques to students and as a state mission to care for everyone in need.
Shekhawat and Mathews were on call when a physician at another hospital referred the infant to them, making them obligated to treat him in a way they would not have been in private practice, Busbee said.
Ruling against the doctors, she warned, could discourage physicians from endangering their careers to fulfill that responsibility.
The court will rule in three or four months.