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Georgia Court of Appeals Holds that a Stay in a Civil Case is Not Required to Protect Party Who is S

On February 19, 2016, John Austin filed a complaint against Narendra Nagareddy, M.D., and Psychiatry Associates of South Atlanta, P.C.'s (collectively “the defendants”) following the death of his wife from a drug overdose. Austin v. Nagareddy, 2018 WL 990030 (Ga. Ct. App. 2018). Austin claimed Dr. Nagareddy prescribed multiple high-dose addictive drugs which created the conditions that allowed Audrey Austin’s overdose. The complaint also asserted that Psychiatry Associates of South Atlanta, P.C. was liable based upon the negligence of Dr. Nagareddy under respondeat superior, partnership law and/or agency law.

On April 13, 2017, the defendants moved for a stay of the civil action pending the outcome of a criminal case that had been filed against Dr. Nagareddy. The defendants attached the indictment against Dr. Nagareddy to the motion, which included one felony murder count relating to the death of Ms. Austin, as well as three counts relating to the unauthorized distribution of controlled substances to her. The defendants argued that a stay was necessary because Dr. Nagareddy would have had to defend himself in the civil matter first; therefore, he would have been required to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege before a civil jury, which carries an adverse inference. The trial court granted the motion for a stay until the conclusion of the criminal trial.

On appeal, Austin contended that the trial court erred by (1) entering a stay, and (2) applying it to a corporate defendant, which has no constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. The Georgia Court of Appeals first noted that there is no constitutional infringement when an individual is disadvantaged in a civil case simply by refusing to provide material facts for fear of self-incrimination in a pending criminal case. Anderson v. Southern Guar. Ins. Co., 235 Ga. App. 306, 311 (1998). Therefore, the issue presented to the Court was not a matter of constitutional right, but one of court discretion, which should be exercised when the interests of justice so require. A person who waives his privilege in a civil case is not required to waive his privilege in a subsequent criminal case. Rather, a person who waives his privilege of silence in a civil case risks that testimony in the civil case will be admissible in the criminal case. See Brown v. State, 256 Ga. App. 603, 610 (2002). In this case, the trial court exercised its discretion to avoid “requiring Defendant to wa[i]ve his Fifth Amendment rights in the criminal matter.” Therefore, because the trial court’s determination was based on an erroneous view of the law, the Court remanded this case to the trial court to exercise its discretion with the correct view of the law.

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