$2.45M awarded for malpractice in same case where woman claimed damages to gay relationship

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by John Christoffersen
Associated Press

July 2, 2010

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — A jury awarded $2.45 million Friday in a malpractice case to the estate of a Connecticut woman who had also that claimed botched cancer treatments damaged her same-sex relationship, attorneys said.

Margaret Mueller and Charlotte Stacey sued two doctors in 2006, accusing them of treating Mueller for ovarian cancer when she actually had cancer of the appendix. They said Mueller underwent years of devastating chemotherapy treatments while the real cancer spread.

Attorneys for the doctors, Iris Wertheim and Isidore Tepler, have said the two provided appropriate care for a complex illness.

The Stamford Superior Court jury awarded $2.45 million to the estate of Mueller, who died last year.

But the claim that the botched surgery harmed the couple's relationship was thrown out earlier because the couple was not married then. Attorneys say the lawsuit was the first of its kind under Connecticut's civil unions law.

Mueller's attorney welcomed the verdict and said he would appeal the decision throwing out the claim allowing Stacey to sue.

"It's a vindication of what Margaret Mueller wanted from the moment she came to us," said Joshua Koskoff, her attorney. "She wanted to make sure what happened to her didn't happen to anyone else."

Stacey welcomed the verdict as well.

"I'm very glad that justice was finally done," she said. "We both wanted justice done."

She said the earlier decision tossing out her part of the claim was ironic because the couple was not allowed to get married at the time.

"I don't think it's right," she said. "That makes no sense. We were together the entire time. We were a complete couple in every sense of the word."

Koskoff said the couple would have been married at the time of the surgery if they had been allowed to under the law. Connecticut has recognized that denying their right to marry was unconstitutional, so the issue will be whether that decision was retroactive, Koskoff said.

Wertheim's attorney, Eric Stockman, vowed to appeal.

"I'm disappointed with the jury's verdict, which I think was against the weight of the evidence," Stockman said. "I think the evidence established that Dr. Wertheim, who cared a great deal for this patient, acted thoroughly and reasonably under the circumstances."

The jury, which deliberated for four days, determined 55 percent of the verdict should be paid by Wertheim and 45 percent by Tepler. But Tepler had resolved the lawsuit earlier, attorneys said.

The couple said the painful treatments could have been avoided if the doctors read the original pathology report that correctly identified the cancer.

"I saw three and a half years of Marge literally sleeping her life away," Stacey said in 2006.

Connecticut's civil union law, passed in 2005, allowed Stacey also to sue for the harm to her relationship, known as a loss of consortium claim, Koskoff said. Before the law gave gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples in Connecticut, only a married partner could seek that compensation.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that same-sex couples have the right to wed in the state.

The women said virtually every aspect of their lives was changed by the ordeal. Mueller was no longer able to climb the 27 stairs at her condo in Stamford, so the couple moved to Norwalk and Stacey spent four hours per day commuting to her insurance job in New York.

Stacey recalled the couple's many sleepless nights, sudden trips to the hospital and endless injections to treat the cancer.

Mueller had to use a colostomy bag and could no longer perform simple chores like mowing the lawn and housekeeping and has trouble with singing in a church choir, a passion that brought the couple together in the first place.

"Charlotte has been there for everything," Mueller said in 2006. "She kept me going. There's a lot we can't do anymore. She has to do an awful lot by herself."