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What is it like to receive the medical equivalent of a death sentence, then find out it was all a terrible mistake? That’s what a plaintiff’s lawyer argued before a South Carolina jury, which recently ordered a hospital to pay a $1.1 million award to a woman who thought for 4 1/2 years that she had the HIV virus when she didn’t, and took potent drugs that made her sick. Jane Doe v. Palmetto Health Alliance, No. 00CP 40-0371 (Richland Co., S.C., Ct. C.P.). “I asked the jury to imagine what is it like to live one day being HIV-positive, then multiply that by 365 days for 4 1/2 years,” said attorney Hank Burriss, adding his client’s diagnosis was “ultimately a death sentence. “All she kept imagining was dying this painful, horrible death,” he said. According to Burriss, the plaintiff is a 41-year-old former bank loan specialist whose life fell apart due to a cocaine addiction, then spiraled out of control after being informed that she was HIV-positive in 1994. According to Burriss, among his client’s complaints was that in addition to the emotional stress she suffered, she also was hurt physically as she took potent medications for HIV patients over the years that left her feeling sick to her stomach. For example, he said, during her second pregnancy, at the recommendations of doctors, she took the powerful drug AZT for six months to protect the fetus. “I told the jury, ‘You cannot put your moral standard of where you think she should have been. You need to look at where she was and where she went to,’ ” said Burriss, of the Burriss Law Firm in Columbia, S.C. A $250,000 CAP The hospital, Palmetto Health Richland in Columbia, S.C., has asked the judge to reduce the jury award to $250,000 under South Carolina’s Tort Claims Act, which limits damages against public entities. According to court records, the hospital was a government-run health care facility when the woman was initially tested for HIV in 1994. The hospital’s attorney, William McDow of Plowen, Carpenter & Robinson in Columbia, S.C., would not comment on the case. A hospital spokeswoman, Judy Cotchett Smith, said, “We were really surprised with the jury’s verdict. It was an extraordinary award.” According to Burriss, his clients’ misdiagnosis was the result of a transcription error made by a hospital employee who mistakenly entered a positive HIV result into its computer records. Burriss said that Doe had initially gone to the hospital in 1994 because she was eight months pregnant and wanted a blood test. She went to a lab, had blood drawn, then waited for the results. In February of 1994, a doctor at the hospital told her that she had tested positive for the HIV virus. Burriss said it wasn’t until 4 1/2 years later, while being treated at the Ryan White HIV Clinic, that Doe found out she never had the virus. He said a doctor at the clinic noticed that Doe had put on some weight, thought she looked healthy and wanted to retest her for HIV. The follow-up test was negative, as were three additional tests, Burriss said. Burriss said he later subpoenaed the initial 1994 HIV lab report, which also listed a negative result. He said a hospital employee apparently entered a positive result in the hospital’s computer records. “I think it was painfully obvious that Richland hospital made a transcription error,” Burriss said. “It was basically a general-negligence case against the hospital. They admitted that they had a duty to report test results accurately and I believe the jury felt that the hospital breached their duty.” In court documents, the hospital, which maintains it did not deviate from any standard of care, admits that there is a report in the medical records that shows one negative HIV result; an additional, confirmatory test showed a positive result.

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