Boy Wins Huge Malpractice Award

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Hartford Hospital Loses $12.5 Million Verdict To Patient Who Became Quadriplegic

by Lynne Tuohy
The Hartford Courant

July 30, 2003

A Hartford jury Tuesday returned a $12.5 million medical malpractice verdict - one of the largest ever in the state - against Hartford Hospital in the case of a 12-year-old South Windsor boy who became a quadriplegic seven years ago when a spinal tumor swelled while he awaited surgery.

The jury, after a 10-week trial and five days of deliberations, agreed with lawyers for Justin Iriondo that a failure to adequately monitor him, and to react to a medical student's documentation that the boy had lost the movement of his arms and legs, resulted in permanent paralysis.

"He walked into the hospital, and everything went downhill very quickly after that," said Justin's lawyer, Christopher Bernard, of the Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder law firm. "It was not some sudden event that happened. He was clearly getting worse."

The jury award includes $9.8 million in economic losses, for the future cost of Justin's care and his lost earning capacity. An economist had testified that the cost of care would be about $28 million, based on a life expectancy of 70 years. The jury also awarded $2.7 million for pain and suffering.

Justin had a slow-growing but benign tumor inside his spinal column. He suffered mild symptoms for about a week, then the symptoms grew more severe. He went to his kindergarten class the morning of Oct. 30, 1995, but by nightfall was a patient at Hartford Hospital. The tumor was diagnosed the next day, and surgery was scheduled for Nov. 3. But in the interim, Bernard said, "he just fell through the cracks.

"A whole team of people was supposed to be following him, and the records show nobody saw him except a third-year medical student who did a very detailed exam the morning after admission and found Justin couldn't move his arms or legs," Bernard said. "Nobody acted on it. At 10 p.m., he went to the ICU [intensive care unit] because he had stopped breathing."

The tumor had swelled considerably, compressing his spinal cord. The blood vessels inside the tumor eventually ruptured, "but he was quadriplegic long before the bleeding started," Bernard said.

Justin was comatose for two days and in the ICU for 50 days. In addition to being a quadriplegic, Justin's bowels and bladder no longer function, and he doesn't have enough strength in his muscles to cough. A tracheotomy tube has to be suctioned several times a day and monitored constantly for blockages.

A registered nurse accompanies Justin to Timothy Edwards Middle School, where he is a straight-A student entering the eighth grade. His father, Joaquin Iriondo, sleeps on the floor next to his bed, Bernard said.

Bernard said the testimony of several of the staff members involved in Justin's care differed markedly from sworn statements they had made in depositions four or five years earlier.

"It was bizarre," Bernard said of the contrast in the depositions and testimony. "It was kind of shocking, in fact, that some of the witnesses changed their testimony entirely."

Justin also had received doses of morphine that neither his pain management specialist nor his attending physician were aware of, Bernard said.

Attorney Augustus Southworth III, who represented Hartford Hospital, maintained that Justin's care was appropriate and that the medical crisis he suffered was extremely rare. One expert said the odds of it happening were 1 in 62 million, Southworth said.

"The child was monitored exactly correctly," Southworth said. "He was seen by five doctors a minimum of nine times in approximately 10 to 11 hours, and was seen every hour, at a minimum, by the nursing staff. You cannot monitor anyone any more intensely than that."

He said that for six days before being seen by a doctor, Justin had experienced neck and back pain serious enough to awaken him each night.

The lawyers used the case to argue from opposite ends of the spectrum in the ongoing national debate on whether medical malpractice awards should be limited by law.

"My opinion as a lawyer - not as the lawyer for the hospital here but as a lawyer who does a large amount of medical malpractice defense - is that it's an irrational verdict motivated by sympathy for this terribly injured child and not a rational examination of the evidence," said Southworth, of Carmody & Torrance law firm.

"This is a classic example of why we need malpractice reform and a better way of taking care of catastrophically injured people," he added.

Bernard called Justin's case "a perfect example of why a cap on non-economic damages is a horrible idea." He said the economic damages would cover medical expenses, for the most part.

"They awarded him $2.7 million because he will spend his life in a wheelchair unable to move his arms and legs," Bernard said. "It was a clearly rational decision, well thought out. There is no reason to tell this jury that listened to 10 weeks of testimony they're not competent to make this decision."

Lawyers for the hospital could ask Superior Court Judge John Langenbach to set aside the verdict, or appeal it; Southworth said it was too soon to say which tack they would take.

Justin's condition has been a financial, and emotional, challenge for his family. His mother, Cynthia, is a paralegal. His father was a professional jai alai player until he was sidelined by an injury. Joaquin Iriondo now works part-time on weekends as treasurer for the jai alai workers union. Both parents have arranged their schedules so one or the other can be with Justin when he is not in school. They also have a younger son, age 10.

Justin uses a straw in his mouth to type and to operate the video games he plays with his friends and younger brother. He plans to go to Harvard and study law. "He uses a computer like a pro," Bernard said.

Justin testified for about 20 minutes - his only appearance in the courtroom during his trial.

The largest medical malpractice verdict in Connecticut was $27 million, awarded to William Jacobs in 1999 against Yale-New Haven Hospital, after a surgical resident punctured his aorta during heart surgery, leaving Jacobs blind and brain-damaged at 19.

The second largest verdict, later reversed by the state Supreme Court, was $12.2 million, awarded in 1997 to "Dr. Doe," a first-year medical student at Yale University School of Medicine, who contracted the AIDS virus in a needle-stick injury. Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder represented the plaintiffs in those cases as well.