$7M Settlement Ends Malpractice Case
Jan. 14, 2003
By Fred Ney
WILKES-BARRE -- It cost two doctors and Wilkes-Barre Mercy Hospital $7 million Monday to settle a wrongful death lawsuit that sought to hold them responsibility for the death of Frank Thornton of Wilkes-Barre.
The end of the 2-year ordeal came Monday at an news conference called by the plaintiff's lawyer, Joseph Quinn, to announce the terms of the settlement; to elicit a humiliating apology from the hospital and to showcase the point that skyrocketing medical malpractice rates are caused, in large part, by refusal to settle such cases early on.
Mr. Quinn was joined at the news conference by Dorothy Thornton, widow of the 72-year-old victim, who suffered brain damage that ultimately claimed his life as a result of an improperly placed anesthesia ventilator tube.
Expected to last more than two weeks, the trial was in its third day Friday when it recessed abruptly amid word that settlement discussions were planned for the weekend.
Mr. Quinn earlier made it clear that he held Dr. Esther McKenzie, an anesthesiologist, and Dr. Walter Boris, a surgeon, responsible for Mr. Thornton's death.
He accused Dr. McKenzie of inserting the ventilator tube in the esophagus instead of the trachea and he accused Dr. Boris of failing to intervene to correct the problem.
The hospital, he asserted, failed to properly screen Dr. McKenzie when she was hired, despite the fact that she did not present proper credentials and had failed attempts to become board certified five times.
Moreover, Mr. Quinn said the hospital tried to cover up the situation by failing to record any pertinent information about the errors on its permanent record.
But the reason the trial ended so abruptly Friday, according to Mr. Quinn, was that hospital Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery Dr. George Moses was the next witness to be called.
"Dr. Moses, had he been allowed to testify, would have given evidence about 28 violations of hospital standards and 14 or 15 violations of Department of Health regulations that occurred at the hospital," Mr. Quinn said. Dr. Moses and some other doctors were "willing to tell the truth," he said.
Dr. Moses could not be reached for comment Monday.
Mercy Hospital's chief executive officer, James May, offered "condolences and an apology" to Mr. Thornton's widow at the news conference. "This has been a tragedy for Mercy Hospital as well. But a sincere attempt to learn the truth will make honesty our reality," he said.
Mrs. Thornton, who talked about visiting her husband "in the cemetery," said she was grateful the lawsuit has been resolved. "I hope that Mercy changes its practices," she said.
Mr. Quinn said the Thornton case shows there are valid malpractice cases. He said his firm spent $249,000 to date on expenses related to prosecuting the case. "And all the bills are not in yet," he said.
He said he conducted 26 depositions of doctors, nurses and hospital administrators and retained 20 expert witnesses to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs.
"There must be a mechanism to eliminate frivolous cases, but when there is merit, victims must be able to proceed," he said. "Some doctors feel they shouldn't be held accountable."
Mr. Quinn said talk of tort reform often mentions putting limits on jury awards, and $250,000 is often mentioned as a proper limit.
The lawyer said limiting jury awards to $250,000 "would discriminate against senior citizens and constitute an insult."
Mr. Quinn said the Thornton case "could have been settled for a lot less had it been done earlier to eliminate the lion's share of the costs of pursuing a case for two and a half years."
He said his law firm would get 40 percent of the $7 million settlement and that the plaintiffs, including the widow and her adult children, will get a "lump sum payment."