Four days after the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state's damage caps in medical malpractice cases as unconstitutional, a Coffee County jury awarded Atlanta attorney Laura M. Shamp's client $1.5 million in pain and suffering damages. It was a fortuitous stroke of timing, and a hefty verdict for an already disabled client who then lost a thumb when an IV needle leaked into his tissue.
"This was probably the first [verdict] to come down after that decision," said Shamp in reference to the high court's March 22 decision in Atlanta Ocuplastic Surgery v. Nestlehutt, which declared that legislative caps on non-economic damages in med-mal cases violated the constitutional right to trial by jury. "Otherwise, my damages would have been capped at $350,000."
Shamp's client, 47-year-old Johnnie Jackson, suffers from diabetes and chronic pancreatitis and was fully disabled when he was admitted to Coffee Regional Medical Center in Douglas, Ga., on April 30, 2005, seeking treatment for complications from his pancreatic disease.
According to court documents, a nurse inserted an IV containing Phenargen, an anti-nausea drug, and Demerol, a painkiller, into his right wrist at about 6:30 that evening, and a check an hour or so later revealed nothing amiss. But at about 3 a.m. May 1, the site of the insertion was "painful and swollen," and the needle was removed 45 minutes later.
Almost nine hours elapsed before Jackson's doctor examined him and discovered that the drugs had leaked into surrounding tissue. The physician elevated Jackson's hand but he continued to complain of pain. On the afternoon of May 2, he was transported to the South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta where an orthopedic surgeon performed surgery on his wrist but was unable to save the thumb.
Jackson spent another 24 days at the Valdosta facility where he underwent "multiple additional surgeries to save his hand," according to a complaint Shamp filed in 2007, naming Coffee Regional and five nurses as defendants, asserting that the nurses had allowed the drugs to infiltrate the tissue surrounding the IV needle.
The defense was handled by Hall, Booth, Smith & Slover partner Anthony A. Rowell and associate Virginia N. Hall. Neither responded to a request for comment, but according to the pretrial order in the case, Jackson's doctors found a blood clot in a vein near his thumb on May 2, and sent him to the Valdosta facility where the orthopedic surgeon's notes indicated Jackson's thumb "was nonviable at that time."
The nurses "operated at all times within the applicable standard of care," the defense said in court documents.
Trial commenced March 22 in Coffee County Superior Court before Judge Dwayne H. Gillis.
"Their defense was that the IV did not infiltrate and that even if it did, that was not what caused the loss of his thumb," said Shamp. "They said it was simply that strange things happen and this was a coincidental blood clot that ended up contributing clotting at the same time."
Jackson, said Shamp, had a history of diabetes and chronic pancreatitis at the time of the incident and, while appearing healthy enough, was unable to work because of his frequent hospitalizations.
Because of that, Shamp did not ask for lost wages or economic damages other than medical bills.
"I asked for between $1.2 million and $1.6 million, based on a yearly sum of between $35,000 and $40,000 a year for the rest of his life," she said. "I argued that the hospital gave him a 'job' of living without his thumb for the rest of his life, so he should be paid for it."
Prior to trial, she said, the nurses were dismissed with the plaintiff's permission, and the hospital remained the sole defendant.
The trial ended March 26 and the jury was out about two hours, said Shamp, before awarding Jackson $53,026 in medical expenses and $1.5 million for pain and suffering.
In post-trial conversation with jurors, she said, some indicated that evidence provided by entries in some of the nurses' logs after the infiltration "may have impacted their credibility."
Shamp said that there would be no appeal or other post-trial motions to challenge the verdict because of an agreement between the parties. The case is Jackson v. Coffee Regional Medical Center, No. 2207S04-387.