UPDATE—The jury issued a verdict for plaintiff of $10,009,284.40 to the estate of Brandon Harris and $10,500,000 for his wrongful death for a total of $20,509,284.40. The jury apportioned blame at 60% for Neurocare, Inc., 39% for DeKalb County EMT, 1% for Dr. David Schulman, 0% for Dr. Srinivas Bhadriraju, and 0% for The Emory Clinic, Inc. However, the jury also found Emory Clinic responsible for the negligence of Neurocare. As a result of the verdict, the total judgment will be reduced by 39%. Courtroom View Network will continue to report on the case as it develops. Click here to see how this verdict compares with verdicts in other trials CVN has covered in 2015.
Decatur, GA—Trial continues today in DeKalb County State Court in a medical malpractice case arising out of the death of the son of longtime community activist Renee “Sunshine” Lewis during a sleep study at the Emory Clinic Sleep Center. Renee Lewis v. The Emory Clinic, Inc. et al. (11A36471)
Brandon Harris, Lewis’ 25-year-old adopted son, died on January 23, 2010, while participating in a sleep study at the Emory Clinic Sleep Center. According to statements in the case and other information, Harris had suffered from numerous physical problems for years. He was born to a drug-addicted mother and weighed less than a pound at birth. By the time of his death, he suffered from cardiomyopathy, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and was considerably overweight. In addition, he had the mental capacity of a ten-year-old child.
In the fall of 2009, Harris’ new primary care physician referred him to a cardiac specialist at the Emory Clinic. The cardiac specialist thought that some of Harris’ problems may have been related to sleep apnea and referred him to Dr. Srinivas Bhadriraju, a sleep medicine specialist. Dr. Bhadriraju took Harris’ medical history and ordered an overnight sleep study to determine the severity of any sleep apnea and the appropriate treatment.
During the sleep study, Harris woke up at approximately 4:00, needing to use the bathroom. Shortly after emerging from the bathroom, Harris collapsed and fell to the floor. The technicians at the sleep center called 911 to summon the DeKalb County Fire and Rescue team, but Harris died shortly afterwards. Subsequently, Renee Lewis filed the current medical malpractice case, which proceeded to trial against the Emory Clinic, Dr. Bhadriraju, and Dr. David Schulman, director of the Emory Sleep Laboratory, among others.
The sleep center made a video recording of Harris’ sleep study and its aftermath, and the jury will have the opportunity to view the recording. Both attorneys made reference to the recording during their opening statements, but their interpretation of the events depicted varied considerably.
In her opening statement, Lewis’ attorney Jane Lamberti noted that the sleep center technicians, who were not physicians, monitored Harris’ physical condition during the study. One key measurement was Lewis’ 02 (oxygen) saturation level, which indicated the level of oxygen in the blood. According to Lamberti, once the saturation level went below 90 percent, a patient could experience respiratory distress that could eventually lead to cardiac arrhythmia. In addition, because people need more energy when awake than when asleep, a drop in Harris’ oxygen saturation level was more critical once he awoke than while he was asleep.
Lamberti contended that Dr. Bhadriraju knew of Harris’ history of cardiomyopathy and also that Harris usually slept on two pillows to avoid breathing problems but did not inform the sleep center technicians. He also did not inform them of Harris’ special needs, and, as a result, they denied Lewis’ request to spend the night in the room with her son and had Harris lie flat on his back during the study. As a result, Lamberti stated that Harris developed pulmonary edema during the night.
In Lamberti’s view, the sleep center technicians were not fully aware of Harris’ increased oxygen needs while awake and had not been given proper guidance by Dr. Schulman as to what to do. As a result, they were unaware of the extreme severity of Harris’ condition for at least 17 minutes after he collapsed before calling 911. Lamberti said, “We have a tech who, when she sees [the 02 saturation level] at 80, around 4:30, she doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Their experts will even agree … his 02 sat was low, 911 needs to be called, oxygen needs to be applied, it’s an all-out emergency. The staff doesn’t realize that. … She gets him a cup of water… He had enough water in his lungs; he didn’t need water in his mouth; he needed oxygen. She wasn’t trained to know that and realize that.”
A complicating factor in the case is the fact that the sleep center technicians who attended Harris were employed by Neurocare, Inc., a company that contracted with the Emory Clinic for the on-site management of the sleep center. In Lamberti’s view, that fact was immaterial because Dr. Schulman and the Emory Clinic had ultimate control and responsibility over the sleep center and had the responsibility for providing emergency services when needed. In addition, Lewis knew and trusted the Emory Clinic to provide treatment for her son. In fact, the name Neurocare does not appear anywhere at the sleep center or in any information Lewis received, and she was unaware of the company until the lawsuit was filed.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Eric Frisch laid the blame for Harris’ death on the lack of proper response by the DeKalb County EMT’s who were summoned. In his view, the sleep center technicians did everything they were supposed to. Brandon Harris’ vital signs were all normal while he was asleep, and he showed no signs of pulmonary edema or respiratory discomfort. Instead, in Frisch’s view, Harris’ problem wasn’t a sleeping problem but an “awake problem” that only manifested itself when he left the bathroom.
Frisch said: “[F]or the first time, [Harris] suddenly and without warning had a drop in his oxygen saturation levels. … [T]he techs recognized he was having a problem, that they responded appropriately, that they followed the lab’s policies and procedures, that they called 911, that they called DeKalb County’s Fire and Rescue team, and when DeKalb County’s Fire and Rescue team got there, [the rescue team] let them down…. For over five minutes, the very people they called to help Brandon Harris did nothing, nothing. … Had DeKalb County done its job, we would not be here today. … It was almost five minutes, and the life savers do nothing to save his life. No CPR, no pulse, no assistance with him trying to breathe, nothing.”
Later, Frisch added: “[The EMT’s] could have saved him, they should have saved him, and they would have saved him if the lifesavers had just done their jobs. Six people; six trained EMT’s, one paramedic whose job was to save his life, and for five minutes nothing. … They had the equipment, they could have started putting air into his lungs, they could have provided the oxygen … that he needed, they could have shocked his heart. … They don’t leave [for the Emory Hospital Emergency Room 1.1 miles away] for another 20 minutes. They didn’t do any of the things they were supposed to have done as lifesavers.”
Frisch also denied that Dr. Schulman or the Emory Clinic had been negligent in the training and supervision of the Neurocare technicians. He noted that all the technicians were properly certified and that the sleep center’s guidelines met the standards of the American Society for Sleep Medicine. Those protocols called for the technicians to monitor Harris once he experienced shortness of breath to see if his condition stabilized and, if not, to try to administer oxygen which they did. Only when those measures failed were they supposed to call 911.
However, in Lamberti’s view, the DeKalb EMT’s were not responsible for Harris’ death, and even proper attention by the EMT’s would not have saved Harris’ life once the sleep center technicians failed to contact them for 17 minutes following Harris’ showing signs of distress. “At that point, with Brandon having cardiac myopathy, … diabetic, hypertensive, 17 minutes of severe hypoxia, …his heart wasn’t going to come back. … Once he fell to that floor, … more likely than not, he wasn’t going to be resuscitated. … I’ll admit to you … I don’t think the EMT’s did a good job of trying to revive Brandon. But what my experts will say is that had Emory done their job, he wouldn’t have fallen to the floor.”
The trial is expected to continue for the remainder of this week. Courtroom View Network will continue to report on developments in the case as they occur. Steve Silver can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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