Schukraft Decision Rare, Lawyer Says
The Times Leader - Wilkes-Barre, PA
Schukraft Decision Rare, Lawyer Says
By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
Wyoming Valley Health Care Systems is negotiating the amount of punitive damages in a newborn baby's death. Punitive awards are not common in medical suits.
A Luzerne County jury's decision to hold a Kingston hospital and doctor liable for punitive damages is extremely rare and indicates the panel found "outrageous conduct," said an attorney with a state lawyer's association.
Mark Phenicie, legislative counsel for the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, said punitive damages were awarded only about eight times in all litigation in Pennsylvania in 1998. He can't recall the last time punitive damages were awarded against a physician.
A jury on Thursday ordered Dr. Mark Polin and Wyoming Valley Health Care System to pay $5 million for emotional distress and $6.7 million in compensatory damages to Heidi and Scott Schukraft of Dallas for the death of their newborn son Jan. 9, 1997, at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston.
The infant died of oxygen deprivation shortly after birth. Jurors found Polin and several nurses acted with "reckless indifference" for failing to take action after a heart monitor that showed the infant was in danger in the womb.
That finding allowed the Schukrafts to seek punitive damages against Polin and the healthcare system. They would have been prevented from doing so if the jury found that the doctors and nurses were found only negligent, Phenicie said.
"Punitive damages are there for what a jury believes is outrageous conduct." Phenicie said. "It's to punish. If it's just simple negligence, that's compensatory damages."
Phenicie said there is no limit to what jurors could award in punitive damages if the case goes to a hearing, although the amount could be reduced if a judge deems it is excessive.
Jim Roberts, spokesman for the healthcare system, said the verdict will not be appealed. Robert said the hospital is negotiating the amount of punitive damages, and hopes to reach a settlement by the end of the week.
A settlement would allow the healthcare system to avoid a potentially damaging hearing before a jury that would force it to open its books to reveal its net worth, said Joseph Quinn, the Schukraft's attorney.
Quinn said he believes he has a strong case that could result in significant punitive damages. Key factors include the four-month delay before the Schukrafts were told of the medical staff's negligence and the hospital's effort to distance itself from Polin during the trial.
"I think this jury, first of all, was very offended by what it heard. It's clear this was a tale of deception. And I think they were offended the hospital tried to dump all the responsibility on Dr. Polin," Quinn said.
A juror in the case, who asked not to be identified, said the panel was influenced by conflicting stories told by Polin and the nurses. Polin claimed he was sleeping and nurses never advised him of the troubling heart tracings. The nurses insisted he was notified.
"It was unbelievable how it was covered up by those involved," the juror said. "The Schukrafts didn't find out the truth until four months after the child's death."
Roberts declined to say why the hospital has chosen not to appeal the verdict, referring a reporter to a prepared statement issued after the trial.
In the statement, the facility acknowledges that the medical staff made "profound mistakes in judgement."
"We hope that our acknowledgment of responsibility will, at the least, provide the Schukrafts with some sense of relief," the statement read.