Posted on Oct 28, 2006
Malpractice trial continues into weekend
Parents say misdiagnosis resulted in lingering problems for their son
By STEPHEN GURR
Hall County jurors will spend a rare Saturday in deliberations after failing to reach a verdict in a medical malpractice trial that has stretched on for two weeks.
State Court Judge B.E. Roberts dismissed the panel shortly after 6 p.m. Friday following a full day of deliberations. Jurors were asked to reconvene at 9 a.m. today.
Clay and Tracie Smith sued Gainesville physicians Cathryn Finch, Charles Jones, Jeff Elder and Todd Jordan, claiming that the doctors' failure to promptly diagnose their 13-year-old son with Rocky Mountain spotted fever three years ago left him with lingering physical trauma.
According to court testimony, Justin Reece Smith, now 17, was taken to Gainesville's Pediatric Associates in June 2003 with a high fever and headache about two weeks after being bitten by a tick. He was initially diagnosed with a virus.
As the illness progressed over the next several days, he was admitted to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, where the correct diagnosis of Rocky Mountain spotted fever was made. Justin spent 12 days at the hospital and allegedly suffered brain injuries, which his parents claim have left him with permanent emotional and behavioral problems.
The doctors who missed the diagnosis contend that it would have been hard for any pediatrician to spot the symptoms of a disease that is relatively rare in Georgia.
In his closing argument to jurors Thursday, plaintiffs' attorney Davis S. Bills proposed a damages award of $3.8 million for the medical expenses, pain and suffering, and future lost wages he claimed his clients' son has suffered.
"Justin is never going to get a day's vacation from this," Bills said, as the teen looked on from the first row of the gallery. "He's going to need a lot of medical treatment for the rest of his life."
The two sides spent more than three hours summarizing the case for the jury Thursday, with defendants' attorney Weymon Forrester challenging Bills' contention that the case was a "slam dunk" for the Smiths.
"If it is a slam dunk, why do you suppose we've been here all of this time?" Forrester said.
Forrester, who represents Finch, Jones and Elder, said an expert witness who testified for the plaintiffs that the diagnosis should have been made sooner "is not in the same shoes as these doctors at all."
David Weber, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was criticized by Forrester for claiming in his testimony that Rocky Mountain spotted fever was not rare. Forrester said in 2003, there were 84 cases of the illness in children ranging in age from 5 to 14.
"To me, that's rare," Forrester said.
The doctors lived up to their professional standards of care, Forrester said.
"We submit they exercised reasonable care and reasonable judgment in what they were doing," Forrester said.
John Dickerson, representing emergency department physician Todd Jordan, said the illness "is something that's just not prevalent in Gainesville."
"Not a soul here will tell you that Rocky Mountain spotted fever is something these four doctors see on a regular basis," Dickerson said.
Bills, arguing for the plaintiffs, said the doctors violated their standards of care by failing to diagnose the illness and administer the proper treatment.
"This case is clear-cut," Bills said. "It's egregious, and there is no defense. The defendants want to deny liability, they want to deny accountability, and they won't take any responsibility."
Now in its 11th day, the trial is an unusually long proceeding for Hall County State Court. Roberts indicated that jurors are hopeful they won't be required to report to court Monday.
"They're ready to return to their lives," the judge told the attorneys.