The Connecticut Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments May 4 in a case that focuses on how much a widow can collect in a loss of consortium claim.
A jury awarded $4.5 million for the tort that allows a spouse or family member to sue for being deprived of a loved one’s physical companionship after an injury.
But the defendant in that case argues the multimillion-dollar award was far too much, taking its case all the way to the high court.
At issue is a $5.8 million January 2017 jury verdict in a medical malpractice claim against Hartford Hospital. The lion’s share of that verdict came after the jury found in favor of plaintiff Marjorie Ashmore, and awarded her $4.5 million for her loss of consortium claim in the death of her husband, William Ashmore.
The hospital appealed, claiming that Superior Court Judge Andrew Roraback was wrong to let the $4.5 million consortium award stand. It claimed the award was excessive “as a matter of law,” because it was four times greater than the noneconomic damages the widow won for her husband’s death.
Hartford Hospital argued Roraback should have struck down the award as “excessive.” It maintained the verdict “shocks the sense of justice and compels the conclusion that the jury made a mistake or that it was influenced by partiality or corruption.”
The trial court denied the defendant’s motion for remittitur, which would have set aside or reduced the verdict. It instead found Marjorie Ashmore’s legal team had presented sufficient evidence at trial to show the award was fair, just and reasonable.
In putting on its case, court documents show plaintiff counsel demonstrated the Ashmores were high school sweethearts, who had been happily married for 45 years, raised three children together, and were mutually dependent on each other for support, affection and companionship.
The hospital raised a challenge, claiming Roraback was wrong to deny its motion for remittitur.
The Connecticut Appellate Court did not hear the case, but the high court accepted jurisdiction.
Robert Reardon Jr., a partner with the New London-based The Reardon Law Firm, said Friday he believes the hospital’s chances of winning at the state’s high court are very slim.
“The Connecticut Appellate Court and Connecticut Supreme Court are very reluctant to overturn a jury verdict that the judge has approved,” said Reardon, a more than 40-year attorney who specializes in medical malpractice law.
New Spotlight on Old Law
The Ashmore case points to Connecticut’s still-developing ”loss of consortium” notion, and how what should have been fact-driven and case-specific valuation litigation reached the state’s highest court.
Loss of consortium is an ancient tort that dates back to around the 1800s, and has been in use in common law for centuries. It first allowed only men to bring claims for their spouse’s physical injury. But over time, most jurisdictions, either by statute or court decision, have extended the right to women. In recent years, the common-law rule of consortium has spurred academic debate as to whether it carries misogynist and archaic connotations.
But Reardon said the issue remains “an emerging field” before the courts and state legislature. Judges and jurors have no set rules to determine such claims, but understand their intangible value
“The loss of a lifelong companion, such as a spouse, is a terrible loss that people often do not recover from,” he said.
“The hospital’s claim of the award for consortium damages being almost four times greater than the noneconomic damages is meaningless, in my opinion,” said Reardon, who is not involved in the Ashmore case. “The jury listened to and weighed the evidence. If the marriage, as in this case, was for 45 years, there is no doubt that the husband and wife’s lives were intertwined and the loss of one spouse can be just devastating.”
As for the $4.5 million award, Reardon doesn’t find it unreasonable. It’s “a typical amount, nowadays,” he said.
In their lawsuit, William Ashmore Sr.’s family claimed the 68-year-old Naugatuck resident died when Hartford Hospital personnel failed to reconnect wires of his pacemaker before administering a potent narcotic.
William Ashmore died Nov. 1, 2011, five days after he underwent successful cardiac surgery to repair a heart valve.
At the time of the jury verdict, the family’s attorney, Eric Smith of the Faxon Law Group, said the hospital failed to properly treat Ashmore after the surgery. He said hospital stall installed temporary external pacemaker wires to accelerate Ashmore’s heart rate if it slowed. But Smith said by the next day, Ashmore’s heart rate had slowed to “dangerously low levels”—a condition known as bradycardia—after he received medication intended to slow his heart rate.
The suit alleged hospital personnel never connected Ashmore’s pacemaker wires to an electrical source to restore his heartbeat to his normal rate. Smith said Ashmore was deprived of critical blood flow and oxygen, which led to severe brain damage and death.
Smith said Friday the jury did its job, and said he was confident the state Supreme Court would side with the family.
“This is what jury trials are designed for,” he said. “The jury in these types of cases will look to determine whether there was malpractice, and if that caused a preventable death. And, if so, (it looks) to compensate the estate and the surviving spouse. That is what this jury did.”
The couple “had a very symbiotic relationship,” Smith said. “They had a tight bond and a significant partnership for many, many years. He relied on her and she relied on him.”
Smith will not handle oral arguments, as James Healy, an attorney with Cowdery & Murphy in Hartford, will take over the appeal for the family.
Isabella Squicciarini and David Hardy of the Waterbury offices of Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey represent the hospital. Neither attorney responded to a request for comment Friday.
Hospital spokesman Shawn Mawhiney declined comment.