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Personal Injury Verdicts & Awards

Widow's reward is answers in death

Family's attorney, Joseph Quinn, said he pushed to have $7 million malpractice settlement made public to show case was not frivolous.

By David Weiss
Staff Writer

WILKES-BARRE - The $7 million settlement Frank Thornton's estate received Monday was only a fraction of what came out of his family's medical malpractice case against Mercy Hospital.

The case gave Thornton's wife, Dorothy, the opportunity to find out what led to her husband's death at 72. And it gave the hospital a chance to apologize to the Thornton family and vow to do whatever it takes so families are no longer left in the dark about incidents during surgery.

"Please know that his case was never about money, because no amount of money can ever change the fact that when I visit my husband I have to visit him at the cemetery," Dorothy Thornton said. "This lawsuit was to find the answers that no one would give us."

Still, attorney Joseph Quinn, who represented Thornton's estate, said he pushed to have the settlement amount made known so the public would see the case was not frivolous.

In many medical malpractice suits, confidentiality agreements prevent either side from releasing the settlement amount.

"What is long overdue about this case is that we have lifted the cloak of secrecy," Quinn said.

The settlement comes in the midst of a debate about rising medical malpractice insurance rates, which many doctors said has caused them to stop accepting new patients or move out of state.

Frank Thornton died in September 2000, a few weeks after doctors placed him on a ventilator before surgery. But when they put him on the ventilator, the doctors, Esther McKenzie and Walter Boris, placed the breathing tube down his esophagus instead of his windpipe.

That forced his body to go without oxygen for six to 10 minutes, leading to Thornton's brain damage and death, Quinn said. The doctors also missed signs that the tube was misplaced, including a swollen abdomen and a dropped heart rate.

And the hospital also failed to tell Thornton's family about the error, ignoring a patient's right to know, Quinn said.

The jury trial began last week, but halted on Friday as the attorneys entered settlement negotiations. They returned Monday morning to Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr's courtroom to dismiss the jury and make the $7 million settlement official.

"I am very grateful that this matter has been resolved," said Thornton, flanked by Quinn and his daughter, attorney Michelle Quinn, at a Monday press conference. "It has been very difficult for my family to sit in court every day and listen to the testimony."

Thornton said she hopes her husband's case will convince hospitals to be more open with patients and their families so no one will endure what her family has endured.

Her plea was heard.

During the press conference, Mercy Chief Executive Officer James May personally apologized to Thornton and her family Monday and acknowledged the need for honesty.

"This is a tragedy not only for the Thornton family but for our entire community and for the Mercy family as well," said May, who was not CEO at the time of the Thornton incident.

"I believe this legal action by the Thornton family represents a legitimate and sincere attempt to learn the truth," he said. "As the new leader of Mercy, I can tell you unequivocally that our philosophy is to tell the truth. ... I will do everything in my power to make honesty our reality as we move forward."

As part of the settlement, the hospital will also begin a program in Thornton's name to promote a patient's right to know.

Quinn, who has been on the winning end of numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements, said he is interested in improving the system.

Part of that could be done if doctors who commit errors admit to their wrongdoing, Quinn said. That would ease the emotional pain of a victim and their family, and it would also decrease costs involved in proving the case and increased verdict amounts.

He said Thornton's case could have been settled for less if the hospital had been forthcoming about mistakes earlier because it would not have been as costly to investigate the case.

Quinn also said frivolous cases filed against doctors need to be weeded out of the system. He would welcome a system that requires "certificate of merit" reported by an expert witness for each case.

"But you must have in place a mechanism that when there is merit, that families don't have to go through this," Quinn said.

Quinn said the medical malpractice debate has focused a lot of attention on the number of frivolous lawsuits filed against doctors. But he wanted to make sure people knew that cases like this - cases with merit - also exist.

"The focus should be on eliminating the medical errors that occur," Quinn said. "We must learn from these cases. And we must do things to prevent or try to prevent history from repeating itself."

Quinn had 20 expert witnesses to show this case was not simply negligence, but outrageous conduct. He also said it took the depositions of 26 doctors and nurses to find out the truth and, to date, Quinn has spent $249,000 in expenses.

"The hospital record contains none of the important facts of what occurred on Aug. 18, 2000," Quinn said. "That's wrong."

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

About Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn, PC

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 Reports, 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, totaling over a half billion dollars on behalf of injured clients. 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 for personal injury and medical malpractice litigation 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 www.HKQLaw.com or by calling (800) 760-1529.

				

 

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