Schukrafts get $6.7 million
The Times Leader - Wilkes-Barre, PA
July 23, 1999
Now, both sides of the case involving an infant's death will negotiate punitive damages. If no settlement is reached, the jury will make the decision.
By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
WILKES-BARRE - A Dallas couple on Thursday was awarded $6.7 million for the death of their infant son, but the total could be much greater when punitive damages against a doctor and hospital are determined next week.
A jury found the care given by Dr. Mark Polin and several nurses at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital was so poor that it constituted a "reckless disregard" for the infant's life, opening the door for much steeper damages, said Joseph Quinn, attorney for Heidi and Scott Schukraft.
The Schukrafts were awarded $5 million for emotional distress and $1.7 million in compensatory damages.
"We're thrilled with this, but this case is still open," Quinn said moments after the verdict was rendered in Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas.
Quinn said he is negotiating a settlement of the punitive damages, but he is prepared to return to court early next week if talks break down. The damages would then be determined by a jury.
The verdict ended an often dramatic two-week trial in which Polin and nurses were intensely criticized for failing to act after a heart monitor showed infant Scott Schukraft Jr., was in trouble in the womb. The newborn died from oxygen deprivation shortly after birth on Jan. 9, 1997.
"What made this case so outrageous is there were so many opportunities over so much time," Quinn said in his closing argument. "This is not ordinary negligence. This is unbelievable conduct."
Polin and his attorney, Daniel Ryan, declined comment after the trial. Patrick Carey, attorney for the Wyoming Valley Health Care System, also declined comment In a prepared statement released late Thursday night, Jim Roberts, spokesman for the healthcare system, offered "heartfelt apologies and regrets" to the Schukrafts.
"From the onset of this trial we acknowledged that caregivers made profound mistakes in judgement ... We hope that our acknowledgment of responsibility will, at least, provide the Schukrafts with some sense of relief."
Polin admitted at trial that he fell asleep in a physician's lounge and failed to monitor Heidi Schukraft during a critical stage of labor. But he said the blame was shared by nurses, who he claimed failed to advise him of the troubling heart tracings. The nurses also failed to stop administration of a labor reducing drug known to intensify fetal distress.
Jurors deliberated for two hours before deciding the nurses carried the bulk of blame for the death. The panel found the nurses 70 percent responsible. Polin was found 30 percent responsible.
"We're thrilled with the verdict, but there's no winner here," a somber Heidi Schukraft said as she left the courtroom.
Schukraft said she and her husband agonized about filing the suit, but felt it was necessary to get the full story of what happened to their son.
"It wasn't easy bringing this to trial, but I think we did the right thing," she said. "I don't think we're going to look back and have regrets and say, if only we would have pursued this, if only we would know what really happened. That's why we did pursue this, to find out what happened."
The Schukrafts spoke with Polin for several minutes after the verdict. Heidi Schukraft declined to detail the conversation. Asked if she could ever forgive Polin and the nurses, she said yes.
"I think when something happens, people need to be accountable for what has happened. I think this allowed people to be accountable for their actions. That's what we needed to do."
Quinn said there was a settlement offer before the trial. It was rejected, in part, because the Schukrafts wanted the actions of Polin and the healthcare system to become public.
"Unfortunately some cases are settled and the public never ever hears the story. In this case I think it was important for them to hear the story and understand what goes on behind closed doors," Quinn said. "It was a story that was shocking to all of us when we heard it in its entirety."
Quinn said all defendants are equally responsible for the monetary damages. Typically, insurance companies would battle over who pays what percentage, but that isn't an issue here because the same insurer covers all defendants.
During closing arguments, Quinn pleaded with jurors to award "full justice" to the Schukrafts.
"You cannot and will not count high enough to do the justice required and bring back the kind of award this sordid story demands," Quinn said.
Patrick Carey, attorney for the healthcare system, conceded hospital nurses were negligent, but argued the bulk of the blame rested with Polin.
Carey accused Polin of trying to paint himself as the "good guy" ho was being made a scapegoat by hospital officials.
"I'm the Teflon doctor. Don't let this stick to me," Carey said in his closing statement, paraphrasing the agreement he believed Polin has made. "Dr. Polin fooled the nurses. He fooled the Schukrafts. Don't let him fool you."
Carey repeatedly attacked Polin during the trial, at times appearing more like an attorney for the plaintiff than a defendant.
The point was not lost on Quinn, who claimed the actions were part of a legal strategy designed to deflect blame from the healthcare system.
"What happened is, in a desperate act to avoid responsibility, this hospital abandoned this doctor," Quinn told jurors. "His conduct was so bad here, let's treat him like a leper. Let's walk away all in an attempt to save ourselves."