Posted on Feb 08, 2007
Family awarded $21.5 million in malpractice case
01:00 AM EST on Thursday, February 8, 2007
By Edward Fitzpatrick
Journal Staff Writer
Mary O’Sullivan, shown in 1998, went to Newport Hospital three times in four days before dying of complications from pneumonia.
PROVIDENCE — A jury on Tuesday awarded $21.5 million to the family of a Newport woman, concluding that the 34-year-old mother of three died after receiving negligent care from an emergency room doctor.
The verdict represents the largest jury award in Rhode Island since at least 1999, when Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly began tracking that information, Managing Editor Jason M. Scally said. The previous high was the $18.9 million awarded in 2002 to a Pawtucket woman injured in a car accident, he said.
Henry S. Kinch Jr., Superior Court clerk for Providence and Bristol counties since 1996, said it’s the biggest jury award he’s ever seen. And the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mark B. Decof, said, “I’m virtually certain this is the largest medical malpractice verdict in the history of the state and probably the largest personal injury verdict in the history of the state.”
The award stems from the March 1999 death of Mary O’Sullivan, an Irish immigrant who went to Newport Hospital three times in four days with flu-like symptoms and ended up dying of complications from streptococcus pneumonia, Decof said.
The lawsuit claimed that Dr. Charles L. Stengel, who saw her on the second visit, failed to recognize and react to signs of bacterial infection and sent O’Sullivan home without antibiotics, telling her to see another doctor in five days. In less than two days, O’Sullivan was back in the hospital, where another doctor immediately recognized she had pneumonia and severe sepsis, Decof said.
Toxins from the bacterial infection were eating away at her lung tissue and she ended up with a “hole in her lung the size of a softball,” Decof said. She died on March 1, 1999, 3½ weeks after her first visit to Newport Hospital. Decof said that if Stengel had admitted O’Sullivan to the hospital and given her antibiotics, she would have made a full recovery within three to five days.
The defendants in the suit are Stengel and Newport Emergency Physicians Inc., a corporation that contracts with Newport Hospital to provide emergency room doctors. Newport Hospital is not a defendant.
The jury awarded $9 million to O’Sullivan’s husband, Noel O’Sullivan, for loss of consortium and $4 million to each of their three children for “loss of parental society.” At the time of their mother’s death, Kieran was 6 years old, Clodagh was 2 years old and Aoife was 3 months old. The jury also awarded $500,000 to O’Sullivan’s estate for her pain and suffering. With interest, the award will total $28.63 million, Decof said.
Decof noted the award did not include economic damages such as medical bills or lost wages. “I told the jury during the closing argument that their biggest challenge is to translate what Mary meant to Noel and the children into dollars,” he said. “Noel will be forever grateful to this jury for recognizing how valuable those relationships were.”
Decof said the verdict “means everything” to Noel O’Sullivan, a handyman who took his family back to Ireland about a year after his wife’s death.
“Obviously, nothing can change what’s happened to his wife,” he said. “But the fact that a jury has determined responsibility and accountability is very meaningful for him, especially because one of the defenses was that Mary was at fault for not coming back to the ER earlier after her visit with Dr. Stengel.”
Defense lawyer William F. White said the defendants plan to appeal.
“We obviously disagree with the verdict as to liability,” White said. “And we disagree with the dollar amount of the verdict, as it represents the systemic problem with asking a jury to decide non-economic, emotionally charged issues without any meaningful guidelines or guideposts.”
White noted the plaintiffs did not ask for economic damages such as lost wages and only sought non-economic awards. “This is the classic example of why caps on non-economic damages [such as loss of consortium, familial society and comfort] should be instituted in Rhode Island, as they are in many states throughout the country,” he said.
White described Stengel as “an outstanding doctor,” a “highly competent and compassionate emergency medical physician” and a “tremendous asset to Newport Hospital and the community.” He said he and his family have used Stengel as their doctor many times.
The civil trial began Jan. 8 before Superior Court Judge Judith C. Savage and the six-member jury began deliberating at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 2. The jury deliberated all day Monday and returned the verdict at 3 p.m. Tuesday, according to a courts spokesman.
On the verdict form, jurors answered five questions. The first asked if Stengel “was negligent in his care and treatment of Mary O’Sullivan in that he breached the standard of care then applicable to an emergency medicine physician.” Jurors answered “Yes.”
Another question asked, “Do you find that Mary O’Sullivan was negligent in failing to return to Newport Hospital on Feb. 10, 1999, and if so, was her negligence a proximate cause of her death?” Jurors answered “No.”
“I’m virtually certain this is the largest medical malpractice verdict in the history of the state and probably the largest personal injury verdict in the history of the state.”
Mark B. Decof,