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A Superior Court jury in New Brunswick, N.J., has awarded $10 million to a boy who suffered permanent brain damage after going into shock while eating a candy bar laced with peanuts. The jury found the child’s pediatrician and allergist responsible for his injury by neglecting to inform the child’s parents of the severity of his peanut allergy. The verdict, delivered last week, is believed to be the first plaintiff’s victory in a food allergy case in the United States, said plaintiff’s attorney Robert Ross of Philadelphia’s Kline & Specter. On Christmas Day 1996, Ray Varghese, who was eight at the time, ate a piece of chocolate containing peanuts. He immediately began having difficulty breathing, had an anaphylactic reaction, and went into respiratory and cardiac arrest, according to the lawsuit. Ross said that Varghese’s injuries are permanent. Varghese, now 13, can no longer communicate, is a quadriplegic and has frequent seizures. Suit was filed against Varghese’s pediatrician, Rama Yerramilli; two pediatricians who briefly treated him, S. Ganti and his partner, Vijaya Radhakrishna; and Alan Okie, an allergist Varghese had been referred to. The basis of Varghese’s claim against Yerramilli, Ross said, was that she was aware of Varghese’s allergy, yet she neither referred him to an allergist nor prescribed epinephrine, a drug that can stop or lessen the severity of exposure to, or ingestion of, peanuts. “She was aware of this allergy since he was two,” Ross said. When Varghese was a toddler, he ate a peanut M&M. He developed a rash on his face, and his face swelled. “She prescribed Benadryl; that was it. She gave no warnings about the dangers of a peanut allergy. She did not instruct the parents to get an education on avoidance measures.” Four years later, Varghese, who had also been diagnosed with asthma, ate a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. This time, his entire body broke out in a rash, and he began wheezing and was short of breath. Children who suffer from asthma as well as a food allergy, Ross said, have a much greater risk of anaphylaxis — an immediate, severe allergic reaction to a protein introduced to the body. After Varghese’s second allergic reaction, his parents took him back to Yerramilli, who treated him for complications relating to his asthma. “Again, she failed to warn about the dangers of a peanut allergy. She failed to prescribe epinephrine and failed to refer him to an allergist,” Ross said. Soon after the second attack, Varghese’s insurance changed, requiring the child to go to a different pediatrician. Ganti and Radhakrishna cared for the boy. The first time the pair examined Varghese, they learned of his peanut allergy. Varghese was then referred to an allergist. However, neither Ganti and Radhakrishna nor Okie, the allergist, prescribed epinephrine or warned the boy’s parents of the allergy’s potentially fatal dangers, Ross said. In 1996, Varghese again switched doctors, and he was back under Yerramilli’s care at the time of the anaphylaxis. Ross said the plaintiff settled his case against Yerramilli just prior to trial in a confidential agreement. During the three-week trial, Ganti and Radhakrishna argued that their duty ended when they referred Varghese to Okie. “They said it was Okie who dropped the ball. They contended that [the injury] was not their responsibility,” Ross said. Okie did not appear at trial. The jury delivered its $10 million verdict late last week, finding Yerramilli 80 percent responsible and Okie 20 percent responsible for Varghese’s injuries. Ross said that he would ask the judge to order Okie to pay the entire amount since Yerramilli settled prior to trial. The jury found in favor of Ganti and Radhakrishna. Varghese’s parents also were found not liable for their son’s injury. A third-party claim had been filed against them, alleging that they should have known the consequences of exposing their son to peanuts. The Vargheses countered that they didn’t know how dangerous peanuts were for their child and that they nonetheless tried to keep his exposure to peanuts to a minimum. The case is significant not because of the amount of the award, Ross said, but because of its being the first plaintiff’s victory in a food allergy case. “It’s significant to doctors and to others who have dedicated substantial time to this area and for those who have tried to get the word out that peanut allergies are very serious,” Ross said. “They can be deadly. You have to give severe warnings. The parents’ only satisfaction regarding this verdict is that, hopefully, word will spread that this is a very serious illness. … They are hoping that this will make a difference for other children.” Robert Giannone of Ronan Tuzzio in Tinton Falls, N.J., represented Yerramilli. Debra V. Urbanowicz-Pandos of Duran & Pandos in Mountainside, N.J., represented Okie. Both did not return phone calls seeking comment by press time. Jonathan Cohen, also of Kline & Specter, was Ross’ co-counsel.

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