Medical Director Liability: GA Supreme Court Clarifies Limited Exceptions to Physician-Provider Requirement of Medical Malpractice Cases


By: Michael Eshman
On November 25, 2013, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision regarding the issue of medical directors’ liability when that director had no involvement with the patient.  This was an important decision for not only medical directors, but also for any individual with a supervisory position.  The case involved an allegation of liability against an ER medical director who was not involved with the patient’s treatment.  Plaintiff alleged the medical director was liable for negligently failing to ensure that the emergency room physicians and nurses were adequately trained.
The Court of Appeals initially held that the medical director owed a duty to the patient, and that “the failure to adequately supervise emergency room staff can result in liability for any damages resulting from such failure by one whose responsibility it is to provide such supervision.”  The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the medical director was entitled to summary judgment for the following two reasons:
(1) A medical director cannot be liable for merely undertaking to supervise medical staff, but may be liable if he or she undertakes to direct the method and manner of care rendered by the medical staff.  Because the medical director in the case above did not treat the patient and had no responsibility or authority to control or direct the method or manner of care rendered, he owed no duty to the patient and could not be liable for medical malpractice for the injuries claimed.
(2) The medical director did not escalate the risk of harm to the patient by the alleged failure to adequately supervise the ER physicians and staff.  The Court determined that at most, the medical director failed to resolve a misunderstanding amongst the medical staff about the specific requirements of a certain treatment protocol.
The possibility of medical director liability is not ruled-out by the Court’s decision, but the circumstances of any such liability are clearly limited.  In light of this decision, it would be in the interest of any providers who act as medical directors (or any supervisor) to review their agreements with the facilities where they provide these services and make certain there is a clear understanding of whether the medical provider has the responsibility or authority to control or direct the method or manner of care provided by the medical staff he or she supervises.  If the responsibility or authority exists, then there is potential liability for the medical director for the actions of the medical staff.  If the responsibility or authority does not exist, then the medical director is likely insulated from liability for injuries to patients he or she did not treat, unless the medical director did something to escalate a risk to the patient.