Posted on Sep 08, 2006
$10 million verdict is awarded in medical malpractice case
By Curtis Johnson
HUNTINGTON - When a Morgantown teenager had her knee repaired in 1995, she never believed it would turn into an 11-year ordeal ending with a jury awarding her $10 million for pain and suffering.
Nonetheless, that is exactly how much a Monongalia County jury awarded Allison Riggs, who is now 25, on Tuesday, according to court documents and the plaintiff's attorney Paul Farrell Jr. of Huntington.
The hospital is asking Monongalia Circuit Judge Robert B. Stone to set that verdict aside because the award exceeds the state's $1 million cap on non-economic damages.
Riggs contends that she contracted an infection during the course of a 1995 surgery at Ruby Memorial Hospital. The infection resulted in her undergoing seven additional surgeries.
The plantiff's attorneys further argued the hospital's parent company, West Virginia University Hospitals Inc., did not inform its physicians or patients that it was experiencing an epidemic near the time Riggs was infected.
Hospital Spokesman Bill Case said the verdict was not supported by evidence at trial.
"We're very disappointed by this verdict," he told the Associated Press.
Sen. Evan Jenkins, who also serves as the executive director of the West Virginia Medical Association, said he believes it is likely a judge will reduce the award to its statutory limit of $1 million. He said the cap is "well settled law" that already has been upheld by the state Supreme Court of Appeals on at least two occasions.
Furthermore, Jenkins said he does not believe the Monongalia verdict should raise any concerns about the state's improving medical malpractice climate.
"Significant awards in the past have caused the insurance rates for physicians to skyrocket," he said. "Based on the Legislature's efforts, those rates are starting to come down, and stability is being returned to West Virginia's health-care system. This award will certainly be noticed by insurance carriers and others, and could be factored into setting rates in the future as all verdicts do."
According to a copy of the verdict form, the Riggs family is set to receive $84,989.39 for medical expenses and $10 million in general damages, which include non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering.
Farrell, a Huntington-based attorney with the Greene Ketchum law firm, said he was pleased with the verdict Tuesday evening. He told The Herald-Dispatch that he believed jurors sent a strong message by awarding such a large amount.
"I'm not surprised," he said. "I think the size of the verdict is a direct reflection of the hospital's refusal to take responsibility for the failure of its infection control department, and the impact it had on this girl's life and development."
Jim Kranz and Tony Gregory serve as vice presidents for the West Virginia Hospital Association, and neither would directly comment about the Riggs case.
However, both hospital association executives said their member facilities are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of hospital-acquired diseases.
Kranz went onto say that great strides have been made in the area of infection control since 1995, but diagnosing something as a hospital-acquired disease is still a complicated task because often symptoms do not reveal themselves until after the patient leaves the hospital.
Many patients may contract infections because of an underlying, pre-existing condition, Gregory added.
"It's a little more complicated than what it seems," Gregory said. "Public reporting requires a standard, centralized approached rather than a patchwork of different state laws and regulations."
Kranz said nation's Department of Health and Human Services is currently working on a way to provide an avenue for facilities to publicly provide surgical site infection rates. He expects that will be operational by 2007.