Loss Of Life's Enjoyment Worth $3.5M

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Jury saw how handicapped 'Mayor of Lordship' contributed to community

by Thomas B. Scheffey
Connecticut Law Tribune

November 26, 2007

john jessep

Bridgeport lawyer John D. Jessup said before his mentally challenged client died of complications from bronchitis, the man would rush to the scene of an accident or fire and help direct traffic.

John P. Ackley, Administrator v. St. Vincent's Medical Center

Gregory Ackley was a mentally challenged, unmarried man who lived with his father and traveled the Stratford enclave of Lordship by bicycle. Although Ackley was unemployed, a lawyer won a $3.5 million verdict in a wrongful death case by persuading a jury that Ackley, 47, was leading a rich, active life.

On Feb. 23, 2001, Ackley's family doctor diagnosed him with bronchitis, but his breathing problems didn't improve. So Ackley's father took him to the emergency room of St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport on Saturday, Feb. 27.

He was examined at 10 a.m. by medical technicians, who found his breathing and heart rate abnormally high, said plaintiff's lawyer John D. Jessup, of Bridgeport’s Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder. The oxygen saturation level of his blood was 84 per cent, well below the normal level of 95 to 100 percent.

“He was having to breathe extra hard and his heart was having to work extra hard because he was not getting enough oxygen,” Jessup explained in an interview. “Once he did see a doctor, an hour-and-a-half later, the doctor did not sufficiently oxygenate him.”

Ackley was first given a nasal cannula, which is plastic tubing that feeds oxygen to the nostrils. Only later did doctors try a more aggressive intubation, which involves placement of a tube directly into the trachea in order to promote oxygen flow.

But by 2 p.m., Ackley’s heart “had been running hot for hours – it just gave out,” said Jessup. “By four o’clock that afternoon, he was dead. He could have been helped if they had intubated him early, and given him 100 per cent oxygen.”

The emergency room doctor and other medical personnel were not named as defendants—only the hospital. Jessup argued that overall care in the emergency room was below an acceptable standard.

The alleged failure to correctly address Ackley’s oxygen level was a key element in the lawsuit. “You can’t treat somebody for pneumonia, which is basically a lung infection, unless they can breathe,” said Jessup. “The first order of business is to restore oxygenation, then to attack the bug with antibiotics.”

Lawyers agree that it’s easier to win a sizable wrongful death award if the deceased had a good job and potential future income can be easily calculated.

Ackley didn’t have a job, but he sure did work. “He was a huge volunteer in the town of Lordship,” said Jessup. “He would help people with their lawn mowing, he would do yard work, shovel sidewalks. He went around helping people who needed help.”

One story related by relatives and friends who testified at trial showed his sense of humor. “He told everybody he graduated first in his class from high school. And he did,” Jessup recounted, “because his name was A-c-k-l-e-y.”

“Whenever he heard a siren, he would run to the scene of an accident or fire, and help in directing traffic, or tell people where to park their cars, or to move their cars. He had jackets from the FBI, the EMTs, the police department, the fire department,” said Jessup.

“They all loved him. He was kind of a doer of good deeds. They called him the Mayor of Lordship.”

That sort of rich detail enabled Jessup to establish that Ackley’s death was a significant loss. He succeeded. On Nov. 13, the jury returned a $3.5 million award of entirely non-economic damages. The trial was before Judge Deborah Kochiss Frankel.

“It’s a tribute to the jury that they were willing to see that all life has value,” said Jessup, “and that a person who is not mentally challenged doesn’t necessarily have a more valuable life than a person who is.

“This guy didn’t have a good life, he had a great life. From the time he got up in the morning to when he went to bed at night, he did what he wanted.”

Defense lawyer Paul D. Williams, of the Hartford office of Day Pitney, said, “I have no comment at this time.” He was assisted by Barbara T. Burke.

The defense argued that Ackley was too sick to be revived, and that the hospital’s level of care did not fall below the acceptable professional standard of care.

The highest defense offer was $750,000, and the plaintiff made a $3 million offer of compromise, opening the way for a request for pre-judgment interest.