On Monday, December 11, 2017, a state jury ordered Georgia’s St. Francis Hospital to pay $26 million in the case of a woman who suffered severe and permanent injuries after a 2012 neck surgery, the Ledger-Enquirer reports.
The judgment followed a two-week trial in which jurors heard evidence that Dr. Erik Westerlund, an admitting physician at the Muscogee County medical facility, had left the woman unevaluated for over six hours, an apparent violation of hospital policy.
Surgical Complications Leave Georgia Woman With Brain Damage
In October 2012, the patient underwent an elective neck surgery at St. Francis Hospital, but returned to the emergency room three days later with neck pain and breathing problems.
She was admitted by Dr. Westerlund around 5:30 in the morning but, according to testimony presented at trial, the physician failed to evaluate the woman’s condition for nearly 6.5 hours. Dr. Westerlund saw the patient at noon. A policy at St. Francis Hospital requires admitting physicians to see their patients within two hours of admission.
In the meantime, the woman’s breathing difficulties had worsened. Dr. Christopher Tidwell, a pulmonologist at the hospital, got the call. Arriving in the Intensive Care Unit, Dr. Tidwell quickly diagnosed the woman with pulmonary obstruction, a suspected hematoma, or swollen blood clot. Tidwell performed an emergency procedure, but was unable to prevent life-long disabilities. The patient, who sat beside her attorney through the entire two-week trial, sustained extensive brain damage. Now 58-years-old, she is blind and confined to a wheelchair.
Patient’s Lawsuit Accuses St. Francis Hospital Of Medical Negligence
Two years after the fateful events of October 20, 2012, the patient and her husband filed suit against St. Francis Hospital and Dr. Westerlund, along with several nurses, physicians assistants and Dr. Christopher Tidwell. Over time, this list of defendants was whittled down, until only the hospital, Dr. Westerlund and Dr. Tidwell remained.
Westerlund settled his portion of the case before trial for an undisclosed amount, leaving St. Francis Hospital and Dr. Tidwell to face the Muscogee County State Court jury’s determination.
Doctor Violated Hospital Policy, Jury Holds
At trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the hospital and Dr. Westerlund had acted negligently in providing the patient’s care. Around two dozen witnesses testified before the jury. A coherent picture emerged over the course of two weeks: Dr. Westerlund, attorneys said, had failed to act in a timely manner and his failure, in violation of St. Francis policy, had left Dr. Tidwell, the pulmonologist, struggling to resolve an impossible situation.
This was the version of events endorsed unanimously by jurors after five hours of deliberation that stretched over two days. The jury assessed 100% of the case’s liability to Dr. Westerlund and, via a legal theory known as respondeat superior, his employer St. Francis Hospital. Dr. Tidwell was cleared of all responsibility, even as St. Francis Hospital was ordered to pay the woman $26 million in compensation. Attorneys believe it is the largest judgment ever delivered by a Muscogee County jury in a case of medical negligence.
And just one hour after the award was announced, St. Francis agreed to pay $25 million in damages within a month and renounce its right to repeal the decision. In exchange for these assurances, the woman said she would drop her demand for legal and attorneys’ fees, which could have reached well over $10 million.
$26M Award Will Be Paid Within 30 Days
Court records suggest that St. Francis Hospital’s initial $26 million judgment would be reduced by $1 million, the amount already paid out by Dr. Westerlund’s insurance company.