Columbus, GA—Jurors Monday found a Georgia hospital responsible for the catastrophic brain damage one of its patients suffered during a 2012 respiratory collapse, and awarded the woman $26 million. Williams v. Tidwell, et al., SC14CV882.
The Muscogee County State Court jury concluded a St. Francis Hospital staff physician, Dr. Erik Westerlund, failed to properly treat Sandra Williams for a post-operative neck hematoma, or blood clot, which closed off her trachea, and ultimately helped starve her brain of oxygen.
Monday’s verdict, reached after more than 8 hours of deliberations, separately cleared the Columbus, Georgia hospital’s nurses, as well as Dr. Christopher Tidwell, a pulmonologist who treated Williams.
Williams, then 53, suffered her respiratory faiure as doctors, including Tidwell and Westerlund, worked to intubate her, hours after she arrived at St. Francis complaining of severe neck swelling, throat pain, and an inability to swallow.
Williams had undergone neck surgery days earlier and her trouble breathing stemmed from a growing blood clot that was closing off her windpipe. However, Williams’ attorney, the Bell Law Firm’s Lloyd Bell, contends Westerlund, the hospital’s on-call doctor when Williams arrived, failed to properly report to the hospital, review her imaging results, or treat her while her condition was stable enough to prevent her collapse. Williams’ collapse, he contended, culminated with a botched intubation attempt by Tidwell.
Williams’ respiratory failure has left her blind and dependent on caregivers.
Monday’s $26 million verdict against St. Francis is more than 5 times the hospital's earlier $5 million settlement offer, Bell told CVN after the verdict.
Bell said the hospital has agreed to waive any appeal and pay the full judgment in exchange for him dropping a motion for attorney fees.
The two-week trial focused on whether the doctors had acted properly, given the severity of Williams’ condition. The hospital contended that its staff closely monitored Williams and that an earlier intubation would not have been appropriate. “What Dr. Westerlund did was place this patient in a situation where there would be constant eyes on her, where any sign of respiratory distress would be immediately noted,” Bendin Sumrall & Ladner’s Roger Sumrall told jurors during the trial’s openings. “He was immediately available, and when they did note some signs of respiratory distress he was at the bedside in minutes.”
Tidwell contended that he was not called to see Williams until her condition was critical. His attorney, Weathington McGrew’s Paul Weathington, maintained Tidwell’s decision to intubate Williams in the ICU, rather than waiting for a surgical suite, was the best possible treatment. “As bad as things are for Ms. Williams, she is alive, and she is alive in part because Dr. Tidwell acted, because Dr. Westerlund did what he did… and they were able to save her,” Weathington told jurors at the start of trial.
But, Bell argued evidence showed earlier, more responsive treatment would have prevented Williams’ collapse. “By the time [Westerlund] showed up, there was a mess,” Bell said. “He had put Sandy at risk, and Sandy’s paying the price.”
After the verdict, Bell told CVN he believed inconsistencies between Westerlund's story and other evidence hamstrung his defense. Bell noted Westerlund maintained he had traveled to the hospital to check on Williams, and that, although he reviewed her X-rays, he was unable to find Williams in the ER or ICU. However, Bell noted no one at the hospital saw Westerlund until hours after Williams arrived and computer records showed Westerlund had never reviewed her X-rays. “He had tremendous credibility issues,” Bell told CVN.
By contrast, Bell said he believed the jury connected with Williams and her testimony. “The most powerful part of the case was the plaintiff, Sandy Williams,” Bell said. “Despite everything she had been through, she smiled, she was positive, she was self-deprecating and just exactly the kind of person you want to put your arms around and take care of,” Bell added. “And that’s exactly what the jury did.”
CVN has reached out to attorneys for the defendants and will update this article with their comments as they respond.
CVN recorded the trial and will offer gavel-to-gavel video as soon as possible.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bell Law Firm’s Lloyd Bell represents Sandra Williams.
Weathington McGrew’s Paul Weathington and Tracy Baker represent Christopher Tidwell.
Bendin Sumrall & Ladner’s Roger Sumrall represents St. Francis Hospital.
CVN will provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, on demand, as soon as possible.
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