$1.875 Million Malpractice Award - Most Ever In County
A civil award of close to $2 million dollars was handed down here Wednesday in a medical malpractice suit, in which a Hazleton State General Hospital doctor admitted his negligence in the 1977 death in a Trinidad man.
The $1,875,000 verdict was the largest ever returned in Luzerne County Court.
A 12-member jury returned the verdict in a favor of Aline Richardson, the widow of Roy Richardson.
Defendants in the civil action were Dr. Eugene LaBuz and Hazleton State General Hospital.
The jury of eight men and four women fixed the damages at 1.5 million after deliberating for two hours. Luzerne County Judge Arthur Dalesandro ordered an additional $375,000 in delayed damages.
In their decision, the jury said the defendants, as well as emergency room physician Amiel Martyak, were legally responsible for the medical negligence that ""substantially"" contributed to Richardson's death.
LaBuz and Martyak were held liable for ten and fifteen percent of the amount awarded, respectively, with the hospital held responsible for the remaining seventy-five percent.
Martyak was not named as a defendant in the suit, and the bill for his share of the damages will be assessed against the hospital.
The largest settlement in previous civil cases is believed to be approximately $463,000.
Following the decision, Joseph Quinn, the attorney for Mrs. Richardson, felt "sensational," adding, "the verdict proved a life in Luzerne county is as valuable as it is anywhere else." He said, however, he did not think the case would establish precedent for damages returned for malpractice suits in the county.
"This is a special case, unique to its self," Quinn said in a later interview. "We provided the jury with damaging testimony that made them mad, and they set the right amount."
Mrs. Richardson, a native of the Caribbean, kissed each of the jurors as they left the courtroom, saying in broken english, she would use the money to raise and educate her two children.
Attorney David Snyder, who represented Hazleton General State Hospital and LaBuz, made an immediate motion for retrial in the case.
Mark Graver, attorney for the commonwealth which owns and operates the hospital, established the legal liability for the state was only $250,000 in this suit.
Roy Richardson, 30, was admitted into the hospital on May 2nd, following a car accident, and died a few hours later of suffocation when his lungs collapsed.
In earlier testimony in the eight-day trial, LaBuz, admitted he had misread the x-rays and misdiagnosed the victim's condition, which he listed as stable on the chart.
LaBuz offered no explanation for his actions, merely saying it was the first time in his career he had made such a mistake.
Several of the victims ribs had been cracked and his lung was punctured apparently upon contact with the steering wheel at the time if the crash.
Expert medical witnesses testified Richardson could have been saved if a tube had been inserted into his chest to assist him in his breathing - an action which neither LaBuz or Martyak performed.
Dr. Victor Greco, another emergency physician, testified he had no doubts he could have resuscitated Richardson if he had been alerted to his condition. Greco's name was dropped from the list of defendants early in the trial after Quinn said it was clear he had been misled by LaBuz's casual chart notations.
In a two-hour, emotionally charged closing statement, Quinn told the jury, the doctors charged ""had stripped away any chances he might have had to live.""
He reminded the jury their "award will have to last a lifetime for Aline and her two children."
"You have to take into consideration the value of a human, and what the loss of a father will mean to the Richardson children," he added.
"The time for sympathy in this case is long past," he said. "We're asking for compensation, not sympathy. Justice in a civil case means compensation."
Earlier in testimony, an economist predicted Richardson's lifetime earnings to be in the range $1.2 million dollars to $1.4 million. Richardson had held a management position with Singer Sewing Machine Company, in the Caribbean for seven years prior to his death.
Quinn said he held the commonwealth 100 percent responsible for all of Dr. LaBuz's conduct, because he says, "they are ultimately responsible for the conduct of their employees."
Earlier testimony revealed the administrative files for LaBuz and Martyak, which the state requires to be updated annually, had not been checked over since 1966.
LaBuz had testified that he had not even learned the medical training to insert the chest tube. However, there was a medical technician on duty who could have performed the procedure under a doctor's supervision.
The defense was unable to muster much of a closing argument, appealing to the jury to not be swayed by Mr. Quinn's emotional presentation.
"Dr. LaBuz admitted his fault," said Garber, shrugging. "In our closing, we just had to lay ourselves bare to the jury, and ask them to be understanding."
Garber, nervously smoking a cigarette while the jury was out, said in his twenty-five year career he has never seen a similar malpractice suit, in which the defense had such little evidence to piece together a case.
The lawsuit was filed April 25, 1979, after an autopsy attributed the cause of death to medical negligence.
Quinn said the defendant's attorney did not offer any settlements prior to the trial, although he said they broached a figure of $368,000 midway through the proceedings last week. He said he probably would have settled out of court, but the figure was clearly inadequate.