Cowart v. Widener

Decision Date12 July 2010
Docket NumberNo. S09G1177.,S09G1177.
Citation287 Ga. 622,697 S.E.2d 779
PartiesCOWART et al.v.WIDENER et al.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court


Warlick, Tritt, Stebbins & Murray, Charles C. Stebbins III, Augusta, for appellants.

Sommers, Scrudder & Bass, Henry E. Scrudder, Jr., Atlanta; Fortson, Bentley & Griffin, J. Edward Allen, Jr., Athens; Fulcher Hagler, John A. Davison, Amy R. Snell, Charles C. Mayers, Augusta, for appellees.

NAHMIAS, Justice.

The plaintiffs in this wrongful death case are Roby E. Cowart, Sr.'s estate and his two adult children. The defendants are Cowart's brother-in-law Nathan Lee Widener, the trucking company for which Widener drove, and the company's insurance carrier. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants after concluding that the plaintiffs could not establish that Widener proximately caused Cowart's death without producing expert evidence, which they had failed to do. The Court of Appeals affirmed. See Cowart v. Widener, 296 Ga.App. 712, 675 S.E.2d 591 (2009). We granted certiorari, posing two questions: (1) whether expert evidence is required to establish causation in a simple negligence case where a medical question is involved; and (2) if so, what constitutes a “medical question” so as to require such expert testimony.

As explained in Division 2 below, expert evidence typically is not required to prove causation in a simple negligence case. See, e.g. Self v. Exec. Comm. of the Ga. Baptist Convention of Ga., 245 Ga. 548, 549, 266 S.E.2d 168 (1980). However, expert evidence is required where a “medical question” involving truly specialized medical knowledge (rather than the sort of medical knowledge that is within common understanding and experience) is needed to establish a causal link between the defendant's conduct and the plaintiff's injury. See, e.g. Gilbert v. R.J. Taylor Mem. Hosp., 265 Ga. 580, 581 & n. 4, 458 S.E.2d 341 (1995) (whether the plaintiff actually had cancer that required treatment); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Sutton, 290 Ga.App. 154, 160, 658 S.E.2d 909 (2008) (whether exposure to mold caused the plaintiffs' respiratory ailments).

This is an unusual wrongful death case because the plaintiffs do not allege that Widener caused the internal bleeding that killed Cowart, but rather that Widener failed to render aid to Cowart in a way that would have prevented his death. As we discuss in Division 3 below, the plaintiffs failed to produce evidence-ordinary and expert-showing causation under these unusual circumstances, and therefore the trial court properly granted summary judgment to the defendants.

1. (a) The standards for reviewing summary judgments are settled. Summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” OCGA § 9-11-56(c). Thus, to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, ‘the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact,’ Montgomery v. Barrow, 286 Ga. 896, 898, 692 S.E.2d 351 (2010) (citation omitted), so that the party “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” Kaplan v. City of Sandy Springs, 286 Ga. 559, 560, 690 S.E.2d 395 (2010).

“A defendant may do this by either presenting evidence negating an essential element of the plaintiff's claims or establishing from the record an absence of evidence to support such claims.” Oglethorpe Dev. Group v. Coleman, 271 Ga. 173, 173, 516 S.E.2d 531 (1999). Thus, “the rule with regard to summary judgment” is that

a defendant who will not bear the burden of proof at trial need not affirmatively disprove the nonmoving party's case, but may point out by reference to the evidence in the record that there is an absence of evidence to support any essential element of the nonmoving party's case.

Cox Enterprises, Inc. v. Nix, 274 Ga. 801, 803, 560 S.E.2d 650 (2002).

Where a defendant moving for summary judgment “discharges this burden, the nonmoving party cannot rest on its pleadings, but rather must point to specific evidence giving rise to a triable issue.” Lau's Corp. v. Haskins, 261 Ga. 491, 491, 405 S.E.2d 474 (1991). See OCGA § 9-11-56(e) (“When a motion for summary judgment is made and supported as provided in this Code section, an adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but his response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this Code section, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. If he does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against him.”).

Summary judgments enjoy no presumption of correctness on appeal, and an appellate court must satisfy itself de novo that the requirements of OCGA § 9-11-56(c) have been met. See Chester v. Smith, 285 Ga. 401, 401, 677 S.E.2d 128 (2009); Merlino v. City of Atlanta, 283 Ga. 186, 186, 657 S.E.2d 859 (2008). In our de novo review of the grant of a motion for summary judgment, we must “view the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.” Kaplan, 286 Ga. at 560, 690 S.E.2d 395.

(b) Viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, and drawing all reasonable inferences from the record evidence in their favor, the record shows as follows, with the facts that are based entirely on expert testimony so noted. On November 30, 2003, Nathan Lee Widener left Augusta, Georgia bound for Ohio in his tractor-trailer to deliver freight for United Transportation, Inc. (UTI). Widener's contract with UTI allowed him to choose his own routes but barred him from having passengers ride along unless authorized in writing by UTI. UTI did not authorize Widener to carry passengers, but his brother-in-law, 43-year-old Roby E. Cowart, Sr., rode with him on this trip.

Cowart had fallen on hard times. He was unemployed, had no money, and had been living out of his car. Widener was married to Cowart's sister, and the couple took him in and began feeding and clothing him.

Cowart suffered from a number of health problems, including severe erosive esophagitis caused by gastric acid coming into contact with the esophagus. As a result, Cowart experienced oozing of blood in his throat and a narrowing of the esophageal wall, and it was not unusual for him to cough up small amounts of blood. Expert testimony later explained that blood is an irritant, and that esophageal bleeding can cause vomiting, which in turn can lead to a potentially fatal rupture of the esophagus.

Widener planned to leave for Ohio in the afternoon. That morning, Cowart asked Widener if he could ride along. Widener's wife asked Cowart how he was feeling, and Cowart responded that he felt good, that he wanted to get out of Augusta, and that he wanted to go with Widener to Ohio. At one point, Widener saw Cowart cover his mouth with a Kleenex as a purplish substance trickled out the side of his mouth. Cowart simply wiped it off, flushed the tissue down the toilet, and went back to bed to lie down. Widener had seen Cowart with some blood on the corner of his mouth on several mornings during the past couple months, as had his wife. When they would ask Cowart if he was all right, he would tell them yes, and that he “does that all the time.” Widener's wife had tried on several occasions to get Cowart to see a doctor or go to the emergency room, but he always refused.

Widener and Cowart left for Ohio that afternoon as planned. Around 2:30 p.m. the following day, December 1, 2003, as the two men traveled north on Interstate 75 near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Cowart told Widener that his “throat was closing in on him” and that he was spitting up blood. Widener told Cowart that he looked ill, but Cowart said he was feeling fine, that he wanted to lie down in the sleeper compartment, and not to bother him. Cowart then went into the sleeper compartment, closed the curtain separating it from the front of the cab, and lay down in the bottom bunk. There is no evidence that Cowart ever requested medical assistance.

About three hours later, as the truck approached Lexington, Kentucky, Widener began to smell an extremely foul odor, which expert testimony later indicated was characteristic of diarrhea after substantial internal bleeding. Widener pulled into a truck stop and called his wife, a nurse, to ask her what he should do. She asked if her brother was still alive, and Widener told her that he did not know. She told him to check Cowart's pulse and see whether he was breathing. Widener did as instructed, finding that Cowart was not breathing and had no pulse; he was dead. Nevertheless, Widener returned to the driver's seat, pulled out of the truck stop, and continued on to Ohio. Widener later explained that he was concerned about how his brother-in-law's dead body would get back to Georgia if he did not bring it with him in the truck when he returned home.

Around midnight or early morning on December 2, 2003, Widener pulled into a rest stop about 30 miles north of Columbus, Ohio. Widener accidentally backed his truck into another truck at the rest stop, causing minor damage. An Ohio Highway Patrol officer responded to the incident. According to the officer, Widener was acting very nervous and repeatedly stated that he was alone and did not have any passengers. The officer noticed that Widener kept glancing back at the curtain to the sleeper compartment, so she asked him to open it, telling him jokingly that she needed to “make sure he didn't have any dead bodies” back there. Widener responded, “Well, my brother-in-law is back there, but I don't think he is dead.”

The trooper had Widener check Cowart for signs of life while she called for backup. The body was already cold, and Widener later admitted that he had known for at least the past five or six hours that Cowart was dead. Cowart's body was...

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