Jonesboro, GA—A non-returned phone call is generally an annoyance, but two telephone calls from a concerned patient’s wife to a surgeon’s office that were never returned led to a wrongful death case in Clayton County State Court and, ultimately, a $3.5 million verdict, after the patient died within hours of the telephone calls. Pamela Douglas Banks v. South Atlanta Neurosurgery PC (2008 CV 08001).
According to testimony and other documents in the case, Michael Banks, age 39, underwent a cervical laminectomy at Southern Regional Medical Center on Friday, March 30, 2007, to correct a longstanding condition that caused numbness in his arm. The operation was successfully performed by Dr. Shahram Rezaiamiri, and Banks was discharged on April 1.
Banks began coughing heavily and sweating profusely that evening. His wife, Pamela, called Dr. Rezaiamiri’s office twice on April 2, and spoke with the doctor’s medical assistant Tashara Hall. After the second call, Hall telephoned Pamela Banks about 5:20 p.m., but neither Dr. Rezaiamiri nor anyone else from his office contacted the Bankses that day. During the night, Michael Banks’s conditioned worsened and Pamela attempted to take him to the hospital at approximately 4:00 the next morning. However, he collapsed in his garage and was pronounced dead when EMT’s took him to the hospital. Pamela Banks originally filed suit against Dr. Rezaiamiri and his practice, but the physician was dismissed from the lawsuit prior to trial, and the case proceeded on a theory of simple negligence against the practice.
Although there was some dispute regarding the cause of Michael Banks’s death, the plaintiff’s expert witness, Dr. John Schaefer, an infectious disease specialist, testified that in his opinion, Banks died from pneumonia caused by alpha strep bacteria. These bacteria are extremely common in people’s mouths and normally not dangerous. However, tests conducted shortly before Banks’s surgery showed that he had low white blood cell levels, normally a transient condition. White blood cells fight off alpha strep bacteria in the body, but Banks’s body was unable to fight off an infection due to the low levels. In Dr. Schaefer’s opinion, the alpha strep bacteria could easily have gotten into Banks’s lungs in the small amounts of saliva that commonly go down the windpipe during coughing or during the operation itself. Once in Banks’s lungs, without any natural defenses, the bacteria doubled in numbers approximately every 20-30 minutes.
Dr. Schaefer stated that Banks’s pneumonia was easily treatable with many common antibiotics. If Banks had sought medical treatment and begun an antibiotic regimen before approximately 9:30 p.m. on April 2, Dr. Schaefer believed that the bacteria would not have continued spreading and Banks would not have died a few hours later. A second plaintiff’s expert, Dr. Edwin Cruz, also stated that had Banks received antibiotic treatment for his infection before 7 to 8:00 p.m. on April 2, he would not have died.
Pamela Banks testified regarding her conversations with Dr. Rezaiamiri’s office on April 2. She said that Michael was not overly concerned about his coughing or other symptoms because Dr. Rezaiamiri told him that Michael would probably feel worse before he felt better. Nevertheless, Pamela was concerned and called the office at approximately 9:15 a.m., speaking to Tashara Hall. Pamela said she wanted to get some advice from Dr. Rezaiamiri about what to do. According to Pamela, Hall told her Dr. Rezaiamiri was in surgery that morning and that some coughing was necessary after an operation like Michael’s. Nevertheless, Pamela told Hall to have Dr. Rezaiamiri call her. Pamela said that neither she nor Hall discussed taking Michael to the emergency room or calling 911, but she also denied she ever told Pamela she was not concerned about Michael’s condition.
Pamela continued that she had expected Dr. Rezaiamiri to call her back, and, when he did not do so, she called his office again shortly after 4:00. Hall informed Pamela that she had not given Pamela’s earlier message to the doctor. By that time, Michael had also developed a fever and was experiencing chills, as Pamela reported to Hall. Again, neither Pamela nor Hall mentioned going to the emergency room or calling 911. Hall told Pamela that she would contact the doctor and call Pamela to report on her progress before she left for the day at 5:30. Hall did call Pamela back at 5:20 and said she had left a message with the doctor.
Tashara Hall also testified and contradicted Pamela Banks’s version of the telephone calls. She denied telling Pamela Banks that some coughing was normal during surgery. She said that, in accordance with office procedure, she made notes of what Pamela told her during the telephone calls but not what she told Pamela. Also, in accordance with office policy, she told Pamela to go to the emergency room if Pamela felt it was an emergency but that Pamela informed her the situation was not an emergency. Hall said she would call Dr. Rezaiamiri and relay Pamela’s concerns.
Hall stated that she knew Dr. Rezaiamiri was in surgery that morning, so, after she spoke with Pamela, she called the Piedmont Hospital main number to leave a message for him. She was transferred a couple of times and spoke with a nurse in the operating room and described to the nurse the symptoms Michael Banks reported. She said that contacting the surgeon in the operating room would be faster than calling his cell phone or sending an e-mail to his Blackberry. However, she was unable to identify this telephone call from either the hospital’s or the surgeon’s phone records for that day. Further, Hall admitted that the record that she made of the first call with Pamela Banks did not indicate she called Dr. Rezaiamiri or the hospital, because of the office policy.
In regard to the second telephone call from Pamela Banks, Hall denied that Pamela told her that Michael had a fever or was experiencing chills. However, she did not make a separate record of the second call because she felt that it was a continuation of the earlier call with the same complaints. She said she again called the hospital main number, which transferred her to the operating room. Hall said she thought the doctor was still in surgery so she did not call the doctor’s cell phone, although the hospital’s records indicated his surgery ended before noon that day. However, when testifying the next day during the defense’s case, Hall stated that she had only made the one telephone call to Dr. Rezaiamiri during the morning.
Hall continued that she then called Pamela Banks at about 5:20 and again said she would contact Dr. Rezaiamiri but denied Pamela said anything about Michael having chills or a fever. At that point, Hall sent Dr. Rezaiamiri an e-mail about ten minutes later about Pamela Banks’s call along with several other messages from other patients. The e-mail message stated that Michael Banks was “concerned about coughing constantly and unable to swallow properly.”
Hall then confirmed that, the next day, Dr. Rezaiamiri, after learning of Michael Banks’s death, asked her to document her entire recollection of the previous day’s events. Hall acknowledged that the note did not indicate that she ever called Dr. Rezaiamiri the previous day,
In his closing statement, plaintiff’s attorney Roderick Edmond contended that Hall did not relay Pamela Banks’s complaints to Dr. Rezaiamiri promptly as office policy required. “The evidence shows that Tashara Hall did not pass on any of Mrs. Banks’s messages to Dr. Rezaiamiri for 8.5 hours until she finally sent that e-mail that was in the middle of a dozen other e-mails with messages that were sent to Dr. Rezaiamiri.” He called the medical assistant a vital link to make sure patients receive proper care. “If that connection between the doctor and patient is broken, crippled, has a bad day, patients who have undergone severe, significant surgery can be left out there hanging in the breeze with no direction.” Further, if Hall had ever raised the possibility of Michael Banks going to the emergency room, then the Bankses would have done so.
Edmond felt that credibility was the key to the case, and he proceeded to outline a number of discrepancies among Hall’s various statements at trial and in her deposition. These inconsistencies, which Edmond referred to as “untruths,” included whether Hall told Pamela Banks that she should take Michael to the emergency room, whether Hall was required to document all her actions during patient encounters, whether Hall called the operating room at Piedmont Hospital directly or was routed through the main switchboard, whether Pamela Banks reported different symptoms during the second phone call, and how many times Hall attempted to call Dr. Rezaiamiri.
Edmond emphasized that the Bankses placed their trust in Dr. Rezaiamiri and that none of the post-operative instructions they received described what to do in the event of complications such as coughing and fever. In fact, the instructions said that coughing was encouraged. “[Michael Banks] trusted the doctor and he wanted the doctor’s advice. It’s normal and reasonable to want the doctor’s advice when you don’t know... Do you really think that if anybody from Dr. Rezaiamiri’s office had raised the notion of calling 911 or going to the emergency room that these two folks wouldn’t have done it?”
Defense attorney Jonathan Peters, in his closing statement, pointed out that Michael Banks’s sudden development of pneumonia after surgery like his was almost unheard of in the medical profession. “Their theory is that it’s Tashara Hall’s fault that this man died of a one-in-a-million pneumonia. Not Dr. Rezaiamiri, not the anesthesiologist, not the hospital that discharged him … certainly not Mr. Banks himself. … This Is a production put together to maximize the return. It’s a plea, an attempt, a production to get maximum dollars for you… [This case] is a tragedy, it’s a medical mystery and it is very confusing, but it is not very much to do with Tashara Hall. … And if it’s not, then you cannot award any money against her, against the group.”
According to Peters, standard medical office procedure was to inform patients that if they believed the case was an emergency they should seek treatment, which is what happened in the case. Peters called the Bankses’ decisions not to go to the emergency room or their primary physician a personal choice. He belied the notion that Hall should have known, based on Pamela Banks’s initial phone call that she was supposed to know to “grab Dr. Rezaiamiri out of the operating room.”
As far as Hall’s credibility was concerned, Peters stated, “You can either believe [Hall] or you can believe that she totally made all of this up for whatever reason and that she made it up, right from the word go and has kept with the story through today when her entire job description was to write down as accurately and completely as she could and get the information to Dr. Reizaimairi.”
After the trial, William Atkins, one of Pamela Banks’s attorneys told Courtroom View Network that their client was very humble, grateful and overjoyed by the verdict. He also said that they were very pleased at the outcome, especially considering the long time the case had taken to get to court and how it had morphed over time. Representatives for the defense were unavailable for comment prior to the publication of this article.
Steve Silver can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Attorneys involved in the case include Roderick Edmond, Keith Lindsay, and William Atkins of Atlanta's Edmond, Lindsay & Hoffler for Pamela Banks and Jonathan Peters and Jeffrey Bazinet of Atlanta's Peters & Monyak for the defense.
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