Atlanta—A Fulton County State Court jury awarded nearly $22 million Monday to the estate and widower of a woman who suffered severe, ultimately fatal, brain damage during an epidural procedure in 2008. Sterling Brown v. Southeastern Pain Specialists, P.C., et al., 10EV010621.
Sterling Brown sued Southeastern Pain Specialists and Southeastern Pain Ambulatory Center, as well as Dr. Dennis Doherty and Mary Hardwick, the physician and lead nurse, respectively, that performed an epidural procedure on Brown’s wife Gwendolyn. Brown contended Doherty continued with the procedure, intended to relieve back pain, despite repeated warnings that Gwendolyn’s blood-oxygen levels had become critically low. Gwendolyn suffered severe brain damage during the procedure, rendering her bed-ridden and unable to communicate. She died from brain-injury complications in 2014.
The jury's $21.98 million award included $16 million for Sterling Brown's wrongful death and loss of consortium claims and $4.2 million to Gwendolyn Brown's estate for her pain and suffering. The verdict, which took jurors more than six hours to reach, declared Doherty 50% responsible for Gwendolyn Brown's brain injury, Southeastern Pain Specialists 20% responsible, and Southeastern Pain Ambulatory Center 30% responsible. Hardwick prevailed in the negligence claims against her.
The verdict capped a two-week trial that centered on the cause of Gwendolyn Brown's brain damage and whether Doherty failed to properly care for Brown after she was sedated with Propofol for the procedure. Sterling Brown's attorney, Jay Sadd, of Atlanta's Slappey & Sadd LLC, argued Brown likely suffered an adverse reaction to the sedative, leading to hypoxia, or dangerously low blood-oxygen levels, within minutes of the procedure's start. Sadd argued Doherty inexplicably waved off warnings from medical staff and two electronic monitors, instead completing the procedure in an increasingly chaotic operating room. “All the nurses that were in the room that day, and all the employees will say that she was not fine. She was not breathing. And everybody knew it. Except maybe Dr. Doherty.”
However, the defense argued a sudden stroke or other unforeseeable cause more likely damaged Brown's brain. During closing arguments Friday, Doherty's attorney, John Hall, from Atlanta's Hall Booth Smith, told jurors that, even if Brown's brain damage was caused by Propofol, Doherty could not have reasonably predicted the complication. "The law doesn't charge us with having a crystal ball," Hall said, emphasizing the rarity of adverse reactions to Propofol and Gwendolyn Brown's prior history with the drug. "It charges us with looking at things that are foreseeable."
Hall told jurors standard checks of Gwendolyn Brown, so-called "A-B-Cs", or evaluations of a patient's airway, breathing, and circulation, did not show that she was suffering from hypoxia. "If you don't have (problems with the 'A-B-Cs'), that's not foreseeable that it's hypoxia," Hall said.
Instead, Hall claimed Brown's attorneys concealed the full picture of the epidural procedure. He argued the timeline of the procedure that Brown's attorneys detailed didn't account for medical records showing when Gwendolyn Brown was breathing while sedated. "Why would they try to sell you the car that there is absolutely no breathing anywhere in that record?" Hall asked.
Sadd contended in closings that some figures related to Brown's breathing levels were not necessarily accurate because of the "chaos" in the operating room. Sadd also challenged the credibility of the defense's expert, anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Moon, a colleague of Doherty's who testified that Doherty did not breach a standard of care. “Dr. Moon, if you’ll recall, does not have any experience doing ESI (epidural) procedures. Isn’t that strange?” Sadd asked. “All the people that do pain management procedures in this world, here, even, in Georgia, and you’re going to call somebody who was your friend who doesn’t even do ESI procedures?”
Sadd urged jurors to rely on the timeline of events and actions of medical staff on the scene rather than subsequent testimony in Doherty's favor. Sadd reminded jurors that Michelle Perkins, a nurse involved in the procedure, texted chief nurse Mary Hardwick, requesting assistance for Gwendolyn Brown. "Do you secretly text somebody because you think everything is just going fine? Nah," Sadd said. "Do you secretly text somebody who is the chief nurse, who you know is with another patient who needs to be cared for... unless you really need them?"
The jury's award consists solely of compensatory damages. Notably, although the jury found punitive damages were warranted against Doherty in a separate verdict Tuesday, it ultimately awarded $0 in punitives.
Attorneys for the parties could not be reached for comment before publication.
Attorneys involved in the case include Jay Sadd and Edward Wynn of Slappey & Sadd, LLC, representing Sterling Brown; John Hall, of Hall Booth Smith, P.C., representing Dennis Doherty; Curtis W. Anderson of Downey & Cleveland LLP; and David Root, representing Mary Hardwick.
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