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Personal Injury Verdicts & Awards

Schukraft Decision Rare, Lawyer Says

The Times Leader - Wilkes-Barre, PA

Schukraft Decision Rare, Lawyer Says

By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
Staff Writer

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.

PLEASE NOTE: Every case is fact specific, and these results do not guaranty the same results will be obtained in a different case.

About HKQ Law

Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn is considered one of the top civil litigation and commercial law firms that has had the privilege of representing more families in the courtroom than any other NEPA firm. The attorneys at HKQ Law have been honored as Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, Best Law Firms by US News and World Report, and have received the AV Preeminent Rating by Martindale-Hubbel. HKQ Law was recently recognized for one of the top 20 Verdicts in Pennsylvania.

The firm’s Personal Injury Team, led by Attorney Joe Quinn, Jr., has won some of the largest verdicts and settlements in the region's history. The Personal Injury Team focuses on a wide array of personal injury claims and civil litigation, including medical malpractice, auto and truck accidents, aviation accidents, unsafe vehicles, dangerous or defective products, workplace injuries (worker's compensation), construction site accidents, claim denials by insurance companies, dangerous drugs, defective children's products, nursing home abuse and neglect, and falls due to unsafe conditions (slip and fall).

Attorney Joseph A Quinn, Jr. is one of only 100 attorneys in the United States (and one of only three in Pennsylvania) honored with membership in the Inner Circle of Trial Advocates, and one of only 500 attorneys worldwide chosen to be a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. He has been a Pennsylvania Super Lawyer every year since the program began and has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America every year since the publication was established in 1987. Best Lawyers also named him top personal injury attorney for Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. In addition, Best Lawyers, in conjunction with U.S. News & World Report, has designated HKQ a Tier 1 Best Law Firm across multiple categories in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley.

Since the inception of the firm, the Commercial / Corporate Team led by Attorney Allan Kluger has provided comprehensive, integrated legal services to many of Northeastern and Eastern Pennsylvania's largest corporations, businesses, banks, non-profits and institutions, handling matters involving labor and employment, wills, trusts and estate planning, estate administration, elder law, commercial transactions, residential and commercial real estate, zoning, land use and development, telecommunications, mediations and arbitrations, commercial litigation, title insurance, business planning and business succession, corporate/business structuring, employment discrimination law for employers, banking, creditor’s rights, finance, lender liability defense, covenants not to compete, construction law, mergers and acquisitions and other business matters.

Additional information can be found at or by calling (800) 760-1529.



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