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A couple whose medical malpractice suit against a South Georgia hospital languished for almost 10 years won $1 million earlier this month when the case finally went to an Appling County, Ga., jury. The med-mal verdict is the largest in the county’s history, according to plaintiffs lawyer Gerald W. Bassett of Savannah. He added that the verdict proved the couple’s allegation that the area’s health care system is inadequate. He said the jury deliberated just 3 1/2 hours. The case was tried in Brunswick Circuit Judge Amanda F. Williams’ courtroom in Baxley Dean v. Toombs County Hospital Authority dba Meadows Memorial, No. 94-3-113-C (Appling Super. Dec. 12, 2003). The couple alleged that a nurse on duty at Vidalia’s Meadows Regional Medical Center failed to listen to the wife’s concerns after she was admitted for labor that her baby might be breeched. The nurse also failed to tell the doctor she couldn’t determine the position of the fetus, according to Bassett. The doctor, thinking it was a normal birth, didn’t see the mother for 2 1/2 hours, during which time the baby died in utero, Bassett said. Lawyer Joseph P. Brennan of Brennan & Wasden, who represented the hospital’s insurer, MAG Mutual Insurance Co., declined to comment on the case. He deferred to the hospital, whose chief executive officer, Alan Kent, did not return several calls for comment by press time. Plaintiffs attorney Bassett described what led to the baby’s death that night: At midnight on March 17, 1992, Renee Dean checked into the hospital with labor pains. Dean was 21 years old, 39 weeks pregnant and about to have her second child. Three weeks earlier, she had been diagnosed as being at risk for a breech delivery and had scheduled a C-section at the hospital. When the baby appeared to have turned in the womb, the C-section was cancelled. Dean arrived at the hospital and was checked in by the only maternity nurse on duty, then 51-year-old Linda Sykes. Sykes examined Dean but was unable to determine the position of the baby. The mother told the nurse the baby was breeched two weeks earlier, but the nurse never told the doctor and acted as if she didn’t hear Dean, Bassett said. BABY DIED FROM LACK OF OXYGEN According to hospital policy, the nurse should have paged the doctor on call immediately because the doctor wasn’t on the premises, added Bassett. The nurse called the doctor at 12:35 a.m. but failed to mention she couldn’t locate the position of the fetus. By the time the doctor arrived at 2:30 a.m., Dean’s delivery had turned into an emergency with a breech delivery imminent. The doctor ordered an immediate C-section, but the baby died from lack of oxygen before it was removed from the womb. The child, who was named Christian, was resuscitated but died 10 days later when he was removed from life support. According to Bassett, Meadows Regional, which delivered 600 babies in 1992, is a low-level trauma center with fewer than 150 beds. “Doctors are merely on call. Nurses are the eyes and ears of those hospitals. If they drop the ball, stuff like this happens,” Bassett said. “My contention was that if the nurse had told the doctor she couldn’t locate the position of the fetus, the doctor would have come sooner, found out it was a breech birth with ultrasound and ordered a timely C-section,” he added. During trial, Bassett said the delivery doctor testified the baby could have been born healthy if the doctor had been given better notification. Two years later, the Deans filed the med-mal suit against the hospital and the nurse. But for almost 10 years, there was little movement on the case. Bassett said MAG Mutual refused to negotiate a settlement. Bassett, who recently moved to Georgia from St. Louis, was told about the case by his co-counsel, Long County State Court Judge Richard Phillips, of Phillips & Kitchings in Ludowici. The Dean case originally belonged to Phillips, but he invited Bassett to examine it after Bassett helped win a med-mal case in Reidsville that resulted in a $1.2 million verdict for a patient after a doctor sewed a sponge into the patient’s abdomen. Bassett said it was the largest verdict recorded in Liberty County. It was unclear why the Dean suit had been sitting for 10 years. But when Phillips showed Bassett the case in August, shortly before it was to be dismissed, Bassett said he thought he could win it. EVIDENCE OF ALZHEIMER’S EXCLUDED However, the trial judge didn’t allow some evidence the plaintiffs lawyers found that showed the nurse on duty was possibly suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Bassett said the nurse was dismissed five months after the Dean baby’s death, but he wasn’t allowed access to her personnel records because the hospital assumed liability for her. Still, Bassett contends the nurse’s symptoms could have caused her to forget to tell the doctor that she couldn’t determine the location of the fetus. That message, according to Bassett, would have set off different procedures. The trial lasted five days. Bassett called several experts, including two obstetricians/gynecologists, a labor and delivery nurse, and an economist. Bassett said the insurance company called an ob/gyn, two labor and delivery nurses, the doctor who had provided the woman’s prenatal care, and one hospital nurse who was not involved that night. The defendant’s main defense was that the death was an act of God, and that when the umbilical cord comes out before the baby (called a prolapse), there is generally a bad outcome. The Georgia Alliance for Community Hospitals recently named Meadows Regional small hospital of the year, according to the alliance’s Web site. The $1 million verdict represented the value of baby Christian’s life, or what he could have been expected to earn in a lifetime, Bassett said. He added that after the jury issued the record-breaking damages amount, they asked the judge if she thought it was enough. According to Bassett, she told them they had the final word.

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