Barnum v. Coastal Health Services, Inc., 2007 Ga. App. LEXIS 1174 (Ga. Ct. App. 2007)

Burnice L. Barnum sued Coastal Health Services as administrator of the estate of her uncle Jimmy L. Barnum. Barnum was a resident at Coastal from June 2, 1997 until his death on September 22, 2001. Barnum suffered from numerous medical conditions, including diabetes mellitus, peripheral vascular disease, dementia, incontinence, and stroke-related problems such as difficulty swallowing and reduced mobility. Plaintiff contended Barnum was stable until he suffered a stroke in December 2000. According to the plaintiff, the nursing staff at the rehabilitation center provided negligent medical care to Barnum after his stroke which, among other things, resulted in him becoming malnourished and dehydrated; caused him to develop pressure ulcers on his feet that in turn required him to undergo numerous painful procedures; and resulted in a decubitus ulcer on his lower back at the coccyx (or tailbone) deteriorating into a stage III and then stage IV ulcer that became septic and caused his death.

Plaintiff filed suit in 2003. Discovery ensued and was later closed. In 2006, the parties entered into a settlement agreement providing as follows:

This will confirm that we have agreed to settle all claims of Jimmy Barnum, his estate and/or the beneficiaries of his estate arising out of any and all care Mr. Barnum received at Waycross Health and Rehabilitation on or before July 1, 2001.We will provide you with a check for $ 75,000.00 and you have agreed not to further pursue any further litigation, collection or contribution actions currently pending or filed in the future dealing with any claims for damages for care provided to Mr. Barnum on or before July 1, 2001. You will provide us with a copy of your Amended Complaint, which will eliminate all claims on or before July 1, 2001, and make it clear that the claims you will now pursue will be limited to those after July 1, 2001.

This settlement involves only those claims that you may have had against the nursing home for damages on or before July 1, 2001, as it is your intent to continue to pursue additional claims that you have against the nursing home that allegedly arose and allegedly caused damage to Mr. Barnum after July 1, 2001.

Following execution of the settlement agreement, the plaintiff sought leave to amend the complaint to limit the claims to those arising after July 1, 2001.Coastal responded arguing the claims were resolved by accord and satisfaction. The trial court denied Coastal’s motion, but reopened discovery so Coastal Health would have an opportunity to depose any expert that the plaintiff anticipated calling at trial.

Both issues were appealed and the appeals were consolidated. Initially, the Court of Appeals agreed that a settlement agreement among the parties did not eliminate all of the plaintiff’s claims. The plain language reflects that the plaintiff was required to dismiss all pending claims flowing from nursing care provided on or before July 1, 2001, but could continue to pursue any claims flowing from nursing care provided after July 1, 2001. Coastal argued the claims from prior to the settlement date could not be separated from subsequent claims, but the court, after examining the expert testimony in the file, determined that a genuine issue of material fact remained which precluded summary judgment.

The second issue on appeal concerned whether Coastal could reopen discovery to depose plaintiff’s experts and whether plaintiff would be required to pay for those expert depositions. The Court found that a trial court has broad discretion in controlling the time and scope of discovery. As a result of the settlement agreement, a new causation issue arose – whether plaintiff had any claims flowing solely from negligent nursing care provided after July 1, 2001. Further, the settlement agreement was silent concerning whether additional discovery was available. Nonetheless, the trial court misapplied the standard governing payment of expenses. Unless Coastal could demonstrate manifest injustice, it was required to pay the cost of deposing the expert witnesses. The Court vacated the trial court’s order to the extent that it required the plaintiff to pay the fees of experts redeposed by Coastal Health and remanded the case for further proceedings. Decided: November 2, 2007.

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