Families like the Fretwells seem to be forgotten in the annual turf war between doctors and lawyers in Georgia’s Capitol over who should be protected from malpractice lawsuits.
Like others, Rodney and Sherry Fretwell paid scant attention the state tort reforms approved two years ago, worrying instead about making their next house payment, keeping food on the table and making sure their two young daughters were happy and safe.
But they were soon confronted with one of the least-known provisions of the 2005 law, an obscure section that makes it nearly impossible for patients to win medical malpractice lawsuits against emergency room doctors. Now their story, and others, has prompted Georgia lawmakers to propose retooling the laws and make it easier for alleged malpractice victims to make their case in court.
It started in February of last year, when Sherry insisted that her 39-year-old husband go to the Columbus Medical Center’s emergency room so doctors could treat a headache that wouldn’t go away after four days and numbness on the left side of his body began to grow.
A doctor there told the burly builder that the problem was likely a pulled muscle, and sent him home with prescriptions for a muscle relaxer and blood pressure medicine.
Within a few hours, Fretwell said his left side was paralyzed. He rushed back to the hospital, but the same physician told him once more he suspected a pulled muscle and sent Fretwell home.
The next morning, he was back — this time, by ambulance. His vision had blurred and his vomiting grew worse overnight. After tests, doctors confirmed he had suffered a stroke.
A month later, the family sought out a lawyer to see if they could sue. They were told if the doctors had originally diagnosed a stroke, they could have treated him with medication to reduce its severity. But the lawyers also said the new state law gives emergency room almost complete immunity from malpractice lawsuits, making a lawsuit a long shot.
That could soon change.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, say they fear the provision goes too far.
They back a measure that would scrap language requiring patients to prove emergency room doctors acted with “gross negligence” in malpractice cases, a standard that forces lawyers to prove they knowingly mistreated the patients.
Other supporters range from the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch to the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, which says the current law “makes it all but impossible to even get a day in court in a medical malpractice lawsuit.”
The legislation’s opponents include the Medical Association of Georgia, the doctors group that was a key supporter of the tort reforms, which include a $350,000 cap on pain and suffering damages and new incentives for patients to settle out of court.
The group, says spokeswoman Jillian DePuma, “remains dedicated to protecting the tort reform legislation passed in 2005.”
The influential group’s opposition to the changes is giving the proposal’s supporters fits. Republican Sen. Seth Harp, the bill’s sponsor, has taken to calling the measure “the physician’s protection bill” to smooth over legislators who fear butting heads with the medical association.
He says that the “gross negligent” standard is so fuzzy that malpractice insurers are refusing to cover some ER doctors.
“It’s a misfortune,” says Harp, a Republican from Midland, a few miles from where the Fretwell family lives. “They’re not protecting physicians and we’re trying to make sure they have that coverage.”
The legislation faces a series of hurdles before it reaches a vote, which is why Rodney Fretwell wants legislators to know his story.
After six weeks of bed rest, his awning construction business was in shambles. After the business went under, he lost his house and filed for bankruptcy to avoid $40,000 in hospital bills.
He’s now started to put his life back together. The family is renting a house in Columbus, and a friend from his Thursday night Bible study group hired him to help renovate a building at nearby Fort Benning.
But he says a part of him will always be gone.
His right arm still tingles and parts of his right side that are extremely sensitive. Instead of fooling around in the backyard with his daughters after work, he spends most evenings in a recliner. Some Sundays, he can hardly make it to church.
“I try to continue on. But my body tells me now I’ve got to slow down,” he says. “My body lets me know what my limitations are. It tells me when to stop.”
Sherry cuts in. “If he don’t, I tell him.”
She peers around a McDonald’s restaurant’s play area just north of downtown Columbus, where the couple’s two girls, ages 7 and 5, are playing in a ball pit.
“We’re not in the high class. We’re countrified. We’re not starving, but we don’t have money rolling in. But everyone deserves good health care,” she said. “The story could have a different ending. We just don’t want nobody else to go through this.”
Rodney has stayed quiet most of the conversation, partly because he still doesn’t remember the whole sequence of events, and partly because talking about it gets him upset.
He seems resigned that his lawsuit may not have a chance. But he hopes one day that another could.
“If this is what it takes to open their eyes so somebody else doesn’t have to go through this,” he says, “so be it.”
On the Net:
Senate Bill 286: http://www.legis.state.ga.us
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