Posted on Dec 16, 2005
Hospital loses $9.8 million suit
Malpractice award over newborn's injuries is among largest in Portage
By Cheryl Powell and Stephen DyerBeacon Journal staff writers
RAVENNA - No amount of money can free 3-year-old Rylee DiTullio from a body that won't let her walk, talk or even sit upright on her own.
But her parents say a $9.8 million jury award Wednesday against the Portage County hospital they blame for her injuries will at least provide her medical care.
``It wasn't about the money,' said Rylee's father, Greg. ``It was about being able to take care of Rylee.'
For the first time in at least 20 years, a Portage County jury found county-owned Robinson Memorial Hospital negligent in a medical malpractice suit.
The hospital staff was accused of not taking proper actions after Rylee was born in distress during a scheduled Caesarean section.
Testimony in the trial in Portage County Common Pleas Court showed that hospital employees didn't notice for several minutes that they had inadvertently placed a breathing tube into her stomach instead of her trachea to pump oxygen into her lungs, said Jay Kelley, lawyer for the family. The delay of several minutes resulted in irreversible brain damage, the family's lawyers alleged.
On Thursday, Robinson CEO Stephen Colecchi denied the allegations and said the hospital may appeal. Testimony from one doctor backed the hospital's position that the breathing tube was not improperly placed, Colecchi said.
Another doctor, though, testified that it was.
``We were very surprised by the jury verdict,' Colecchi said. ``We do not believe it's supported by the evidence.'
The nurses and respiratory therapist who were involved in the case are longtime employees still at Robinson, he said.
``We believe that any injuries that the child sustained were... prior to the actual birth,' Colecchi said. ``We believe (the staff) actually did a great job in resuscitating the child.'
But one juror, Craig McCoy, said what convinced him was that Robinson doctors and nurses told different stories.
In addition, McCoy said, the hospital's records were so altered that something seemed ``fishy' to him. ``The hospital's documents they had weren't credible,' he said.
University of Akron law professor Wilson Huhn, who teaches health law, said McCoy's reaction is typical. ``Juries don't like it when records have been altered,' he said.
McCoy, 26, said he didn't think coming to the $9.8 million figure ``was really that hard.' Six of the eight jurors agreed on the sum. ``It has to take care of the child for the rest of her life,' the unemployed roofer said.
All the physicians named as defendants were dismissed from the suit before it went to trial.
Judge John Enlow, who presided, said the damage award is among the largest ever by a Portage County jury.
Huhn, who has closely examined the issue of medical malpractice, said the $9.8 million verdict is large. He said the fact that Rylee was injured but survived, rather than died, contributed to the award's size.
The impact of the award probably will be felt beyond the courtroom, Huhn said. ``I would be surprised if it doesn't mean that access to care goes down in that town,' he said. ``Somebody has to pay.'
If the award stands, the hospital would pay the first $3 million, and insurance the rest, Colecchi said.
The incident happened before a 2003 state law capped pain and suffering damages in most medical malpractice cases at $350,000. The jury awarded $2.5 million for Rylee's pain and suffering.
The bulk of the damage award -- $6.3 million -- was for paying future medical and living expenses. The jury award also included $80,000 for Rylee's past medical expenses and $1 million for lost future wages.
Rylee's parents, who moved from Portage to the Pittsburgh area about two years ago, say they must do everything for Rylee. Feeding her takes about an hour per meal, her father said.
Although she can't talk, she tries to communicate with eye movements and grunts and squeals, he said. ``There's definitely a little person inside there trying to get out,' he said.