Posted on Feb 03, 2006
Jury awards $8.4 million in medical malpractice case
RYAN J. FOLEYAssociated PressMADISON, Wis. -
An $8.4 million jury verdict this week is the largest medical malpractice award since the state Supreme Court tossed out caps on damages last summer, officials said Friday.
A Dane County jury awarded the damages to Jessica Greenfield of Waupun, who has used a feeding tube since a surgery in 2000 for acid reflux left her stomach and intestines unable to function.
Tuesday's award included $4.25 million for pain and suffering and $82,000 to Greenfield's son for loss of companionship with his mother. Those noneconomic damages would have been limited to $445,000 until July, when the state Supreme Court declared the limit unconstitutional.
Gov. Jim Doyle in December vetoed a bill to reinstate limits that the Legislature passed after doctors and hospitals warned the ruling would lead to large damage awards and exploding costs for patients.
Doyle said the proposal - which would have limited noneconomic damages at $450,000 for adults and $550,000 for minors - was too similar to the cap the high court called arbitrary and unfair to the most seriously injured victims.
Greenfield, who uses a feeding tube daily and returns to the hospital every month to empty her stomach, is the "perfect example" of the unfairness of any cap and deserves every penny for her suffering, said her attorney Daniel Rottier.
But the Wisconsin Hospital Association said this week's ruling adds urgency to its push to reinstate limits.
"This verdict confirms in spades the fears and concerns that we have been expressing since the cap was overturned," said Eric Borgerding, a vice president of the group.
Greenfield, 33, argued that a surgeon at a Madison hospital was negligent in performing the surgery. Her nerves were severed during the procedure, which involved wrapping the top of the stomach around her esophagus to prevent heartburn, Rottier said.
The jury agreed with Greenfield, finding the surgeon and Dean Health System negligent. In addition to the pain and suffering, the jury awarded Greenfield $4.13 million for economic damages such as medical expenses and lost wages. Those damages were never limited under law.
Bruce Schultz, an attorney for surgeon Paul Huepenbecker, said nobody was pleased with the surgery's outcome but his client "was not negligent in performing the surgery or in the manner in which he performed the surgery."
Her previous gastrointestinal problems were complicated by the surgery but that's always a risk for patients, he said.
Borgerding said doctors can expect to see more lawsuits, larger jury awards and higher medical malpractice insurance premiums in the absence of a cap.
Wisconsin's Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund, which is named in malpractice suits seeking more than $1 million in damages, faced 71 lawsuits in the final six months of 2005, said fund chief Theresa Wedekind. That's up from 58 the final six months of 2004, she said.
The fund's premiums will go up by 25 percent on July 1 due to the ruling after decreasing for several years, Wedekind said. The annual premium, mandatory for 13,000 doctors, will increase between $215 and $1,300 depending on a doctor's classification, she said.
Borgerding said the more expensive primary malpractice insurance, covering damages up to $1 million, will increase up to 10 percent for doctors this year.
Rep. Curt Gielow, R-Mequon, said he was drafting a bill to reinstate a cap on damages that would be introduced in coming weeks. He said the cap would be in the $750,000 range, a figure he hoped would attract support from legislative Democrats and Doyle.
"It's not the end of the world," Gielow said of this week's verdict. "It's just the beginning of the crack in the wall. Let's get it fixed."