A Savannah woman who became paralyzed after being hospitalized for infection has won an $18 million medical malpractice verdict.
The Chatham County State Court jury reached its verdict Tuesday in favor of Joan Simmons, who was 58 and had worked full-time as an accountant for Colonial Oil Group in Savannah before she became ill and went to the hospital in July 2014, according to court records.
The jury apportioned 90 percent of the fault—or $16.2 million—to SouthCoast Medical Group and Dr. Sarah Barbour, an infectious disease specialist. They were defended by Carlton Joyce and Gregory Sewell of Bouhan Falligant in Savannah.
“We knew this case involved a complicated medical injury, but we believed the evidence supported the doctor’s treatment and decisions. The hospitalization involved a number of physicians who were all doing their best to achieve a successful outcome,” Joyce said. “We’re considering all our options. I suspect there will be an appeal.”
The jury apportioned 10 percent of the fault—or $1.8 million—to Candler Hospital Inc. and St. Joseph’s Healthcare System. The hospital had been dismissed prior to trial and so was no longer a party to the case, according to lead plaintiffs counsel Jeffrey Harris of Harris Lowry Manton in Savannah and Atlanta.
The hospital’s legal team included Wiley Wasden III and W. Richard Dekle of Brennan, Wasden & Painter in Savannah. Wasden deferred to a statement from his client, which said: ”St. Joseph’s/Candler was dismissed from the case prior to trial. We did not participate in the trial. As a result, we are not required to pay anything because of the verdict.”
Harris tried the case with Yvonne Godfrey of Harris Lowry Manton, Owen Murphy, who has his own firm in Savannah, and Andrew Bowen of Bowen Painter Trial Attorneys. The lead paralegal was Zuzana DuBois of Harris Lowry Manton.
“It was a hard-fought case,” Harris said. The jury deliberated 4½ hours after a seven-day trial. Simmons testified from her wheelchair that she expects to regain the use of her legs. Multiple medical experts testified they expect the opposite.
“She’s an amazing woman and a very positive person,” Harris said. “I think the jury believed this kind of judgment would help her. She believes she will walk again.”
Simmons first went to the emergency room on July 20, 2014, for acute back pain. She was treated and released, according to the plaintiff’s summary in the consolidated pretrial order. She went back to the ER 10 days later suffering from an altered mental state. She was found to have a bloodstream infection. On Aug. 5, an MRI revealed an extensive infection and abscess in her spine, according to her lawyers. She underwent decompression surgery on Aug. 6. She was discharged Sept. 11—paralyzed. Her lawyers alleged the hospital staff failed to diagnose the abscess in time to help her.
The hospital’s lawyers contended she had an infection but no spinal epidural abscess, according to their summary in the consolidated pretrial order.
The doctor’s group pointed to an array of health problems Simmons had when she came to the hospital. Their attorneys said in the pretrial order summary that she came to them on July 28 in “dire medical condition” and was “suffering from numerous serious and life-threatening illnesses.” They said she already had diabetes, diabetic ketoacidosis, acute kidney failure and an overwhelming systemic infection—sepsis. They detailed the many drugs they used and doctors they consulted. They attributed the damage to the infection, not to any failure to diagnose an abscess.
The doctor’s group conclusion in the pretrial summary said, “Ms. Simmons’ paralysis was caused by an unavoidable clotting injury or infarction to the vessels that provide blood to the patient’s spinal cord, as opposed to a compressive spinal epidural abscess.”
“I get where they were going with that,” said plaintiffs attorney Murphy. “I don’t think the jurors were buying it.”
The case is Simmons v. Candler Hospital, No. STCV1600837-FO.