When Stanley Laskowski, a combat veteran of the war in Iraq, dressed himself from head to toe in black and broke into a pharmacy in Olyphant, Pa., to steal drugs in the summer of 2007, it had been four months since he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Wilkes-Barre Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center.

The charges stemming from that incident were dropped and purged from his record and a federal judge this week awarded Laskowski and his wife $3.7 million in the medical malpractice suit they filed afterwards. The lack of appropriate care given to Laskowski at the VA hospital for those few months led to his decline and now permanently-disabled status, the judge ruled.

"Here, not only did the VA not provide proper PTSD treatment, but they administered a medication that would result in self-medication with an addictive substance," U.S. District Judge James Munley of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said in Laskowski v. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Munley emphasized that his opinion narrowly applies to this case. "We do not intend this decision to be a sweeping criticism of the defendant’s treatment of veterans with PTSD," he said. "Rather, this case is very fact-specific and we can make no comment on the defendant’s treatment of any other patients."

Munley found that, over the course of roughly four months, Laskowski and his wife reached out to the VA hospital 10 times, but Laskowski was never seen by a physician and was prescribed the wrong medications. Therefore, Laskowski satisfied the state law requirements for proving medical malpractice for the case brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Munley issued his opinion Wednesday, following a seven-day nonjury trial held last fall.

After finding that the VA hospital owed a duty to Laskowski that it breached, Munley looked to the plaintiffs expert, Dr. Robert Goldstein, to find that the VA’s actions caused harm to Laskowski.

"Dr. Goldstein provided the following conclusions: plaintiff is totally and permanently disabled since prior to August 2007. When he arrived at the VA in April 2007, plaintiff would have benefited from psychotherapy and proper medical therapy that the VA had available. At that time he was a high functioning individual without any prior history of psychiatric treatment, and he had a very good prognosis for substantial improvement or complete recovery. Further, Dr. Goldstein opined that it was foreseeable that plaintiff would begin self-medicating with Vicodin," Munley said.

After Laskowski was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, where he had reached the rank of sergeant, in February 2007, he sought help from the VA hospital and began working as a financial adviser for Keystone Financial. He was fired after burglarizing the pharmacy, according to the opinion.

"If plaintiff’s condition had not gotten worse, but had remained the same as when he presented himself to the defendant, he would have continued to function normally, and work," Munley said. "Unfortunately, however, defendant’s actions did cause plaintiff’s condition to worsen."

Munley rejected the government’s argument that Laskowski’s negligence contributed to his deteriorated condition. The government had argued that Laskowski’s alcohol and drug use combined with his failure to alert medical staff about the use should count toward a reduction in the damages that the government owes, according to the opinion.

Munley wasn’t convinced. "The testimony at trial revealed that plaintiff was initially a good patient and actively seeking help from the VA. The VA did not provide the help and medical treatment needed by the plaintiff, and as a result, plaintiff began self-medicating with alcohol and illegal drugs," he said.

Munley awarded Laskowski $214,582 for past lost earnings; $2.1 million for future lost earnings; $500,000 for past non-economic damages, including pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation and loss of the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life; and $700,000 for future non-economic damages. He awarded Laskowski’s wife, Marisol Laskowski, $140,615 for loss of consortium.

"The plaintiffs got justice in this case," said their lawyer, Daniel Brier, of Myers, Brier & Kelly in Scranton. The verdict is appropriate, he said, adding, "This case is about protecting our protectors."

George Michael Thiel, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Scranton, represented the government and declined to comment on the case, citing office policy.

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or sspencer@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.

(Copies of the 69-page opinion in Laskowski v. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PICS No. 13-0141, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •