Mercy, two docs settle wrongful death suit for $7M
Jan. 14, 2003
It cost two doctors and Wilkes-Barre Mercy Hospital $7 million Monday to settle a wrongful death lawsuit that accused them of responsibility in the death of Frank Thornton through "medical misadventure."
The end of the two-and-a-half-year ordeal came Monday at an unprecedented press conference called by plaintiff's lawyer, Joseph Quinn, to announce the terms of the settlement, to elicit a humiliating apology from the hospital and to showcase the point that skyrocketing medical malpractice rates are caused, in large part, by refusal to settle such cases early on.
Quinn was flanked at the press conference by Dorothy Thornton of Wilkes-Barre, widow of the 72-year-old victim, who suffered brain damage that ultimately claimed his life as a result of an improperly placed anesthesia ventilator tube.
Expected to last more than two weeks, the trial was in its third day last Friday when it recessed abruptly amid word that "serious settlement discussions" were planned for the weekend.
Quinn earlier made it clear that he held Dr. Esther McKenzie, an anesthesiologist, and Dr. Walter Boris, a surgeon, responsible for Thornton's death.
He accused McKenzie of inserting the ventilator tube in the esophagus instead of the trachea and he accused Boris of failing to intervene to correct the problem.
The hospital, he asserted, failed to properly screen McKenzie when she was hired, despite the fact that she did not present proper credentials and had failed attempts at becoming board-certified five times.
Moreover, Quinn said the hospital tried to cover up the situation by failing to record any pertinent information about the errors on its permanent record.
But the reason the trial ended so abruptly Friday, according to Quinn, was that hospital Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery Dr. George Moses was the next witness to be called.
"Dr. Moses, had he been allowed to testify, would have given evidence about 28 violations of hospital standards and 14 or 15 violations of Department of Health regulations that occurred at the hospital," Quinn stated.
He said Moses and some other doctors were "willing to tell the truth." Moses could not be reached for comment.
Quinn commended Luzerne County Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. for his willingness to allow settlement information to be made public and not require a confidentiality agreement.
Quinn introduced Mercy Hospital's Chief Executive Officer James May, who began by offering his "condolences and an apology" to Thornton's widow.
"This has been a tragedy for Mercy Hospital as well. But a sincere attempt to learn the truth will make honesty our reality," he said.
May reflected how Mercy Hospital was founded 105 years ago by the Sisters of Mercy.
"We have learned from this mistake," he said humbly.
Quinn quickly added that he never asserted that the Thornton case was representative of the kind of care offered at Mercy Hospital.
He noted that there are "many fine doctors and health care professionals that provide quality care" at Mercy hospital.
Thornton said she was "grateful that this matter has been resolved."
She talked about visiting her husband "in the cemetery."
"I hope that Mercy changes its practices," she added.
Quinn said the Thornton case recognizes that there are "valid malpractice cases.
"I hope this case helps to prevent history from repeating itself," he remarked.
He revealed that his firm spent $249,000 to date on expenses related to prosecuting the Thornton case.
"And all the bills are not in yet," he noted.
He said he conducted 26 depositions of doctors and nurses and hospital administrators and retained 20 expert witnesses to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs.
"There must be a mechanism to eliminate frivolous cases, but when there is merit, victims must be able to proceed," he said.
"Some doctors feel they shouldn't be held accountable," he insisted, adding, "Let's let the sun shine in."
Quinn said talk of tort reform often mentions putting limits on jury awards and $250,000 is often mentioned as a proper limit.
The lawyer postulated that limiting jury awards to $250,000 "would discriminate against senior citizens and constitute an insult."
Quinn said the Thornton case "could have been settled for a lot less had it been done earlier to eliminate the lion's share of the costs of pursuing a case for two and a half years.
He said his law firm would get 40 percent of the $7 million settlement and that the plaintiffs, including the widow and her adult children, will get a "lump sum payment."
Determination of who will pay what portion of the $7 million settlement was not discussed at Monday's press conference.