The state Superior Court has modified a trial judge’s decision to slash by two-thirds a jury’s $1.5 million punitive damage award against a hospital held liable for a patient’s death from sepsis.
In Blango v. Jeanes Hospital,the panel ruled 2-1 that $1 million in punitive damages — twice the amount of compensatory damages — was the appropriate sum.
In a memorandum opinion, Judge Kate Ford Elliott said a $1 million figure would more clearly reflect the trial court’s intent and a more reasonable relationship between punitive and compensatory damages.
“It seems clear that the trial court intended to reduce punitive damages to a 2-1 ratio, i.e., from $1.5 million to $1 million,” Ford Elliott said in her opinion. “Furthermore, as the trial court stated in its opinion, a 2-1 ratio is a reasonable relationship between punitive and compensatory damages in this case and satisfies due process.”
Judge James J. Fitzgerald III joined Ford Elliott in the majority.
In a separate concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Sallie Updyke Mundy said that $1.5 million in punitive damages was a suitable award, and any reduction was an abuse of discretion by the trial court.
“My review of the record … reveals that the jury’s initial award of $1.5 million in punitive damages against Jeanes Hospital was appropriate under the facts of this case and bore a reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages in this case,” Mundy said. “Therefore, remittitur was clearly an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.”
In March 2010, a Philadelphia jury awarded $6 million, including $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, over the care of Joe Blango, 74, at Jeanes Hospital and the nursing home Hillcrest Center in Wyncote, Pa., The Legal reported in May 2011.
The jury in Blango found the two health care providers equally negligent, but awarded $1.5 million in punitive damages against Jeanes Hospital and $3.5 million in punitive damages against Hillcrest Center, The Legal reported.
According to a footnote in the majority opinion, Hillcrest’s appeal was discontinued after the parties settled during appellate mediation, leaving only the $1.5 million punitive damage award against Jeanes Hospital at issue.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge George W. Overton said in an April 2011 opinion explaining his ruling to the state Superior Court that “in Pennsylvania, it has been held that the amount of punitive damages must bear a reasonable relationship to the award of compensatory damages. In this instance, both defendants were found 50 percent liable for $1 million in compensatory damages. Therefore, the initial awards of punitive damages were three times the amount of compensatory damages for Jeanes Hospital and seven times the compensatory damages for Hillcrest Center. The awards were reduced to provide a ratio of 2-to-1 for Jeanes Hospital and 3-to-1 for Hillcrest Center.”
According to the plaintiffs’ court papers, the patient, who was admitted to the hospital in May 2006 for decreased responsiveness and increased weakness, received negligent care at the hospital and upon his release to the nursing home, resulting in bed sores that became infected with bacteria and a urinary tract infection that was not treated properly.
According to Overton’s opinion, Dr. James Steg testified on behalf of the plaintiffs that Blango contracted a urinary tract infection during his first stay at Jeanes Hospital and that the infection contributed to a pressure ulcer, in which both E. coli and MRSA bacteria were found. And Dr. Richard Berg testified on behalf of the plaintiffs that the pressure wound led to Blango’s sepsis and the need to remove one of his kidneys, Overton said.
Blango’s wife, Shirley Blango, testified that she never saw anyone reposition her husband at the hospital or at the nursing home and staff also did not help her husband eat despite the fact that he was unable to eat solid food, Overton said.
Joe Blango died in April 2008, according to the majority opinion.
“There was ample evidence on the record of ‘reckless indifference’ to the rights of others,” Overton said. “Mr. Blango was not adequately fed, his skin was not properly evaluated and most importantly there is no evidence that he was properly turned on his bed.”
Jeanes Hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Harmon said in a May 2011 email that when Blango was discharged from Jeanes Hospital after a total of eight days in treatment, he was in stable condition and in no pain and that he did not die until two years later.
In terms of the $1 million figure, Ford Elliott noted that it is important to consider a defendant’s economic status when assigning punitive damages, and even though the court modified the amount, its majority agreed with Overton’s reasons for reducing the damages.
“Jeanes Hospital’s chief financial officer testified that the hospital is a nonprofit health care provider and is losing money,” Ford Elliott said. “Therefore, we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting remittitur.”
Plaintiffs’ counsel Churchill Huston of the Maher Law Firm in Philadelphia said, “The family’s waited a long time and they are very pleased. We feel the Superior Court got it exactly right.”
The attorney for Jeanes Hospital, J. Kurt Straub, declined comment on the matter.
(Copies of the 24-page opinion in Blango v. Jeanes Hospital, PICS No. 13-2814, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •