Athens attorney Lee Atkinson says a $3.23 million settlement he and partner Jim Matthews secured for a Vietnam veteran left paralyzed by a lack of treatment at a South Carolina Veterans Affairs hospital is “evidence of systemic problems” at VA hospitals across the Southeast.
“Veterans keep falling through the cracks. Bad things keep happening to them,” Atkinson said in announcing the federal government’s decision to settle the medical malpractice case.
“Vets have fairly easily diagnosable conditions that have well-established, well-known, proper treatment,” he added. “But the vets are not sent to the correct specialist to get the treatment they need in a timely fashion.”
Atkinson said he and Matthews—both partners at Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley in Athens—secured the $3.23 million settlement in October on behalf of 75-year-old U.S. Army veteran George “Mike” Egan. They did so despite South Carolina’s $450,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, unless a plaintiff can prove gross negligence.
Atkinson said he and Matthews were able to convince government lawyers defending the VA that they could clear that bar.
Despite an MRI clearly showing a ruptured disc and severely compressed nerves in Egan’s lower spine, medical personnel at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina, delayed spinal surgery for more than 18 months, Atkinson said.
The Columbia VA didn’t have a neurosurgeon on staff, Atkinson said. Instead, its neurosurgery department was staffed by a nurse practitioner who worked under the supervision of a general surgeon.
Rather than send Egan to a spinal surgeon, VA personnel placed Egan on a regimen of increasingly powerful pain medications and epidural injections that did nothing to relieve the damaging pressure on his spinal nerves, Atkinson said. Eventually, Egan was sent to a cognitive behavioral therapist for help with pain management rather than to a surgeon.
Egan initially injured his spine when his helicopter was shot down while he was serving as a crew chief and door gunner with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam, Atkinson said.
Following the 2012 MRI and more than a year of ineffective treatment for his pain, Egan lost the ability to stand.
VA personnel drugged him so heavily that Egan became delirious and, as a result, was placed in a medically induced coma for weeks, Atkinson said. When he came to, he had lost all sensation and function of his legs below the waist.
By the time Egan underwent spinal surgery, the compressed nerves were permanently damaged, Atkinson said.
Atkinson said that lawyers with the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina who litigated the case on behalf of the hospital entered settlement negotiations after District Judge Donald Coggins excluded all the government’s expert witnesses, said Atkinson, adding that the exclusion of expert witnesses is rare.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Murcier Bowens, one of the government lawyers who litigated the case, said that as a matter of policy, the office wouldn’t comment on the settlement.
Atkinson said he and Matthews originally sought between $5 million and $7 million. The government countered with $3.5 million—which was reduced to just under $3.23 million by the U.S. Department of Justice before it would approve the deal.
The settlement was consummated and the case dismissed on Nov. 5. The funds—including what Atkinson said was a flat 25 percent fee for the attorneys—were distributed in November. The firm announced the deal on Nov. 27—a day after the case was scheduled to go to trial.
Atkinson said the lawyers “never could get a good explanation” as to why VA personnel would not send Egan to a private hospital or to another VA hospital—including one in nearby Augusta, Georgia, which had a neurosurgeon on staff.
“Our suspicion is that money matters,” he said.