Jury finds WV Health Care System, doctor negligent in death of infant
The Citizens' Voice - Wilkes-Barre, PA
By Tim Gulla
A jury of nine men and three women determined late Thursday afternoon in Luzerne County Court that an area hospital was more negligent for the death of an infant than the Kingston obstetrician who admitted he abandoned his patient when she needed him most.
Assigning 70 percent of the responsibility to Wyoming Valley Health Care System, doing business as Nesbitt Memorial Hospital, and 30 percent of the responsibility to Dr. Mark Polin, the jury panel awarded $6.7 million in damages to Heidi and Scott Schukraft for the Jan. 9, 1997 death of their infant son, Scott Jr.
"We're thrilled with the verdict, but there is no winner here," Heidi Schukraft said after the verdict. "It wasn't easy bringing this to trial, but I think we did the right thing."
Technically, the trial is not yet over. One major decision remains, punitive damages.
The jury impaneled more than two weeks ago to hear the case could have brought back into court today to decide whether or not punitive damages, which are meant to punish the defendants, should be awarded.
However, Attorney Joseph Quinn Jr., who represents the Schukraft family, said after the trial, "I have been advised by everyone they'd like to settle the case."
If settlement negotiations on the punitive damages are not fruitful by Monday, Quinn said he will inform the court and ask for trial to reconvene on this issue. He explained that the court has the power to recall the same jury, or impanel a new one.
The extremely complex trial, which included allegations of cover-ups, centered on Scott Jr's Jan. 9, 1997 death, minutes after he was born.
It was contended at trial that the child essentially suffocated due to fetal distress caused by the continued administration of a labor inducing drug, Pitocin, to Schukraft. Had the use of the drug been turned off, it was contended, the child would have survived.
However, counsel for the Schukrafts, Joseph Quinn Jr., alleged that Dr. Polin and hospital nurses misread clear signs of fetal distress on a fetal heart rate monitor and the drug was continually, and increasingly, administered to Schukraft.
Polin's legal counsel admitted the doctor was negligent in the case, saying he misread fetal heart readings at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 9, 1997 and unintentionally dozed off in a nearby doctor's lounge 30 minutes later.
Although Polin accepted his own responsibility, his counsel claimed that the nurses attending to Schukraft never came to get him when problems arose with the unborn child. Polin allegedly awoke only minutes before Schukraft was ready to deliver her child.
The next day, after learning that nurses had wrote in the medical records he was "aware" of what was transpiring the night before, Polin wrote an addendum to the medical records in which he admitted he had dozed off.
Legal counsel for the hospital admitted the nurses attending to Schukraft were negligent because they had an independent ability to stop the administration of the Pitocin but failed to do so. However, the hospital's legal counsel contended that the nurses relied on Dr. Polin's interpretation of the infant's condition.
It was also contended by the hospital that Polin was not asleep during the critical time period in question.
The jury panel, in handing up its decision on Thursday, determined that the actions of Dr. Polin and the hospital staff on Jan. 9, 1997 did not represent mere negligence, but "reckless indifference or reckless disregard for the safety and well being of Baby Schukraft."
This decision by the jury set the stage for the as-of-yet undecided determination on punitive damages.
A key defense for the hospital system and its affiliates, Associated OB-GYN Specialists and General Medical Services, was that they could not be held responsible for Polin's actions, or inaction, because he was acting outside the scope of his employment and could be considered an employee.
The jury rejected this claim, finding not only that Polin was an employee or agent of the defendants, who was acting in an official capacity, but also that Polin was not acting in an individual capacity.
It was unclear after the trial how the $6.7 million verdict would be split among the defendants. Quinn noted that all of the defendants were covered by the same insurance carrier.
Daniel Ryan, had no comment after the verdict.
Attorney Patrick Carey, who represented Wyoming Valley Health Care System Inc., also declined comment, saying the system would be sending out a statement.
Attorney Quinn commented after the verdict, "In this case, I think it was important for the public to hear this case."
He acknowledged that there was an attempt to settle the case prior to trial. "But not at the appropriate levels."
In his closing arguments, Quinn asked the jury to find that the hospital was more responsible for the child's death than Polin.
"There's not one scapegoat alone in this and that's what they (the hospital) tried to make him (Polin)," Quinn told the jury.
He added, "This is a couple who were betrayed by the system." The doctor should have seen the signs of fetal distress and should not have let Heidi Schukraft's side, Quinn argued. And, "Every nurse who came in (the room) knew or should have known there was a problem that needed immediate intervention."
The jury's verdict was comprised of $200,000 award for the past, present, and future loss of Scott Jr's aid society and comfort; a $1.5 million award for Scott Jr's lost earnings potential; a $2.5 million award for Heidi Schukraft's past, present and future emotional distress; and a $2.5 million award for Scott Schukraft's past, present and future emotional distress.
In handing up it's decision on the two awards for emotional distress, the jury determined that $1.5 million in damages resulted from Polin's negligence, and that $3.5 million in damages resulted from the hospital system's negligence.