Atlanta, GA— A crowded courtroom of attorneys debated why a Georgia man suffers from “locked-in syndrome” paralysis following a stroke, as trial opened Tuesday against the hospital and multiple healthcare professionals that treated him. Buckelew, et al. v. Womack, et al., 17Ev004146.
Jonathan Buckelew was 32 when he collapsed during an October 2015 chiropractic neck treatment and was taken to Roswell, Georgia’s North Fulton Regional Hospital. Buckelew’s attorneys contend that, although imaging performed soon after his arrival indicated he was suffering a brain stem stroke, medical professionals failed to properly diagnose or treat the condition until the next day.
Buckelew suffered profound brain damage, which has left him with “locked-in syndrome,” in which he is unable to move any part of his body but his eyes, while his cognitive faculties remain intact.
The hospital and four healthcare professionals were among the defendants in the case as trial opened Tuesday, with Shamp Silk’s Laura Shamp, representing Buckelew, telling jurors she would request $200 million in damages.
The chiropractor who initially treated Buckelew is not a defendant at trial.
In her opening statement, Shamp walked jurors through the timeline of Buckelew’s treatment at North Fulton. She contended that critical delays in diagnosis and appropriate care by a slate of healthcare pros ultimately caused his brain injury.
Shamp told jurors ER physician Dr. Matthew Womack knew Buckelew showed symptoms of a stroke. But, although he ordered medical imaging, she said he failed to communicate sufficiently with specialists or call a “stroke alert” that could have prevented Buckelew’s severe brain damage. Meanwhile, she said radiologist Dr. James Waldschmidt, missed the arterial blockage causing the stroke when he read the images Womack ordered.
She added that Dr. Peter Futrell, a neurologist brought in to consult on the situation, failed to ask questions that would have led him to believe Buckelew suffered a stroke. Later, physician assistant Christopher Nickum, Shamp said, failed to timely notify specialists of critical test results that came in overnight. Finally, Shamp added, hospital nurses did not properly alert physicians to Buckelew’s fever and heart rate spikes.
“They did not take responsibility and they didn’t work together to assure that the patient that was in their care, the precious life that was in their hands, got the care that he needed and that he deserved,” Shamp said. “This team failed, and as a result, John is permanently locked in.”
But each of the defendants counters that they followed appropriate standards of care in treating Buckelew in the hours before his stroke was ultimately discovered.
During Tuesday’s openings, emergency physician Womack’s attorney, Hall Booth Smith’s Beth Kanik, told jurors her client followed proper protocol in overseeing Buckelew’s ER care, including ordering head imaging and consulting with specialists.
“He ordered the right tests…. He got the right consult,” Kanik said. “And we don’t believe when you listen to all the evidence, you’re going to see that Dr. Womack did anything that proximately caused the outcome.”
Radiologist Waldschmidt’s attorney, Huff Powell & Bailey’s Michael Frankson, acknowledged that his client didn't see the blood clot causing the stroke. But he said Waldschmidt’s treatment nonetheless met the standard of care because he found a suspected arterial dissection, or tear, that had caused the imaging to be ordered in the first place.
“If you are asked to look for something and then you find it, that satisfaction of finding what you’re searching for may reasonably cloud your ability to find other things,” Frankson said. “In this case, he was looking for a dissection. The study was for a dissection. He found a potential dissection.”
And neurologist Futrell’s attorney, Weathington's Paul Weathington, told jurors his client was not told about the computed tomography angiography imaging, or CTA, that had been performed on Buckelew's head, or that Buckelew had collapsed immediately after a chiropractic adjustment. If he had, Weathington said, he would have immediately suspected a stroke and rushed to treat it.
“Brutally honest: if we were told CTA and chiropractic [adjustment], then Dr. Futrell, my client, violated the standard of care. We’re willing to put that out there,” Weathington said. “Because he wasn’t told that.”
In his opening, physician assistant Nickum’s attorney, Huff Powell & Bailey’s David Mackenzie, told jurors Nickum appropriately treated Buckelew overnight based on the information he had been given.
“He received a phone call from the emergency department and he was told information about the treatment that had occurred prior to his involvement,” Mackenzie said. “Medical providers have a right to rely on the information communicated to them by others.
And Huff Powell & Bailey’s Dan Huff, representing North Fulton Medical Center, said evidence would show that the hospital’s nursing staff followed protocol in passing along information on changes in Buckelew’s condition, including his fever spikes.
“The bottom line is the nurses notified the appropriate person, Mr. Nickum, who ordered treatments for Mr. Buckelew in response to those fevers.”
Beyond disputes over negligence, causation also serves as a key battle line at trial. On Tuesday, the defendants each contended that evidence will show Buckelew’s stroke was so severe he would have suffered the same outcome regardless of when it was diagnosed.
But Shamp argued testimony would prove Buckelew would not have suffered the same profound brain damage if his stroke had been caught and treated earlier.
“If John had gotten the treatment he deserved in a timely manner,” Shamp said, “he would not be locked in today.”
Trial in the case is expected to last at least two weeks.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.