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
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."