Widow Awarded $10 Million

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Lawsuit Filed After Fatal Heart Attack

by Lynne Tuohy
The Hartford Courant

November 8, 2003

A Bridgeport jury on Friday awarded $10 million to the widow of a Stamford truck driver whose doctor failed to pursue more tests after an initial exam showed problems with his heart.

After Gary Carlson had an episode of severe chest pains, an electrocardiogram performed while he was in a resting position showed abnormalities in his heart. His doctor, Robert Goldsmith of the Stamford Medical Group, told Carlson he probably had gastritis, gave him an antacid and sent him on his way.

Less than two months later, Carlson, 49, died of a massive heart attack while recovering from hip-replacement surgery. The autopsy revealed that one of his arteries was 90 percent blocked.

Carlson was five years away from retiring with a full pension when he died Feb. 3, 1994. He and his wife of 27 years, Vita, had three grown daughters and a granddaughter, and plans to spend part of their retirement years at a condominium they had bought recently in Florida.

While the verdict is among the largest in the state for medical malpractice cases, the Connecticut Medical Insurance Co., insurer of the now-defunct Stamford Medical Group, could have gotten off with far less, Vita Carlson's lawyer said. Attorney Joshua Koskoff said he offered to settle the case five years ago for $1 million, the amount of liability coverage the medical group carried. That offer was rejected, and the insurance company never countered.

"They never offered a red cent," Koskoff said Friday.

Attorney Kevin Tepas, who defended the case, confirmed a settlement had been proposed, but declined to comment further, saying it would be "inappropriate." "We're shocked at the size of the verdict, especially where no economic loss was claimed at all," Tepas said. "We disagreed with the court on a number of key rulings, and we're reviewing our options."

Koskoff agreed it was a large verdict, one based on a large loss.

Carlson "had worked three jobs for most of his life to build a better life for his kids than he had growing up in Stamford," Koskoff said. "He had 25 years in as a truck driver with the Genovese Co., driving a cement truck, and was five years away from a full pension. He had been able to scrape together enough money to buy a small condo in Florida, where he and Vita, manager of a hair salon, were going to retire when he was only 54. They had a small circle of friends - these are friends for 40 years - who were all going to retire together and had bought condominiums in the same area."

Koskoff faulted Carlson's doctor for not ordering a stress test, especially in light of other risk factors Carlson had for coronary disease. Koskoff said Carlson was a male over 40, with bad cholesterol readings and high blood pressure, and overweight. "A resting EKG doesn't do it," Koskoff said. "You have to put the heart under stress to do more follow-up.

"This is an egregious malpractice case," Koskoff said. "There wasn't a whole lot of defense offered. They could not find a cardiologist to testify in their defense. They used an infectious disease specialist."

The jury award included $6 million for the loss of Carlson's life, and $4 million for Vita Carlson's loss of her husband.

"She suffered a horrible, catastrophic loss," Koskoff said. "He was her soul mate. ... It's a big verdict, but it's a reasonable verdict. This is the ultimate loss."

The jury returned its verdict at about noon Friday, after a two-week trial and 5½ hours of deliberation.

The state's largest medical malpractice verdict was $27 million awarded to William Jacobs in 1999. That verdict against Yale-New Haven Hospital stemmed from Jacobs' being rendered blind and brain-damaged at age 19 after a surgical resident punctured his aorta during heart surgery.

The next largest verdict of $12.5 million came earlier this year, levied against Hartford Hospital in the case of a 5-year-old boy rendered a quadraplegic seven years ago after a spinal tumor swelled as he awaited surgery.

The Bridgeport law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder represented the plaintiffs in those two cases, as well as in the Carlson case.