A $4.7 million verdict from a medical-malpractice trial against multiple defendants turned into a $1 million insurance policy limit settlement and more fighting ahead.
By all accounts—from lawyers and court records—Connie Lockhart tried to kill herself on Feb. 23, 2012. She would have died then, if not for the actions of two concerned people close to her—who were not parties to the lawsuit. Her daughter noticed worsening depression and called her mother’s psychiatrist. The mother admitted to him on the phone that she had taken two handfuls of her blood pressure medicine. He called 911. That’s how she wound up in the Northside Hospital Cherokee emergency room in the suburban city of Canton. What happened to her there saved her life but also destroyed the lower part of her right leg. After she was moved to the main Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs a week later, doctors amputated her leg below the knee.
Making sure the jury knew what she did to hurt herself became a part of the defense strategy. Making the jury understand why became an important job for her lawyers, Lloyd Bell and David Schlachter of the Bell Law Firm and Darren Summerville and Angela Fox of the Summerville Firm.
“She’d been through a lot,” Bell said. She was 50 at the time and working as a legal assistant. Her grown son had died of a seizure. Her husband had died of a heart attack. Her primary care doctor had put her on an antidepressant—one of those that comes with an increased suicide risk warning, this one applying to younger people. When it didn’t help, she called her doctor’s office. The physician’s assistant doubled the dose. Two days later, she tried to take her own life.
What caused her to lose her leg was that an emergency room doctor misplaced a central line into an artery instead of a vein, started a saline drip and moved her to the intensive care unit, where he expected it would be checked before being used for medicine. The doctor and nurse who saw her next in the ICU did not catch the mistake, according to court records and lawyers on all sides.
The dramatic surprise of the trial came when Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison removed the emergency room doctor from the case just before it went to the jury, leaving him with zero liability.
The lawyer who persuaded the judge to do that was Paul Weathington of Weathington McGrew. He tried the case with J. Gabriel Banks. They represented Dr. Glenn Bloom of Cherokee Emergency Physicians.
“We were able to get a directed verdict in a medical-malpractice case, which is a very unusual occurrence,” Weathington said. “I’ve probably had two in 35 years.”
Weathington did it by discrediting Bell’s expert witness against Bloom. The expert was a critical care specialist, not an emergency physician. Weathington argued that distinction was legally significant.
“He admitted he didn’t know what the national standard of care was for emergency room doctors for placement of a femoral line,” Weathington said.
Once the judge removed the expert, the case collapsed.
Weathington also emphasized the challenges Bloom faced. He tried to insert a central line into the neck but could not safely do it because Lockhart was “combative,” as Weathington put it in the defense summary of the consolidated pretrial order. She even asked Bloom, “Can you just euthanize me?”
So he placed the line into the groin instead. But, because she was so sick and her blood pressure was so low, the usual “landmarks” for correct placement—such as feeling the difference between artery and vein—failed him, Weathington said. She soon was moved to the ICU, where Bloom knew the line would be checked.
Except it wasn’t—not right away. What happened when she arrived at ICU was that she went into cardiac arrest. The staff called a “code blue” and resuscitated her. An ICU doctor instructed a nurse to check the line, but the nurse failed to follow that order, according to the lawyers and court records. Although the nurse did notice the leg turned blue and pulseless and reported that to the doctor—who ordered a test but did not check her himself that night.
After the shift change, another nurse came on duty and figured out the line was misplaced. She alerted the doctor, who immediately ordered stopping the drugs that were going into the artery instead of the vein, causing the damage.
The hospital settled for an undisclosed amount before trial regarding the claim against the nurse, as did the primary care clinic with regard to the physician’s assistant who doubled the dose of antidepressant just before the suicide attempt. Even though they were not parties to the case at trial, their names were on the verdict form.
The jurors returned Thursday evening after nearly eight hours of deliberating, then left again, saying they made a mistake. When they came back, they presented a $4.7 million verdict with fault apportioned. They placed 60 percent of the liability on the hospital, which was no longer a party. They gave 10 percent of the liability to the primary care practice, also not a party to the case. They placed 27 percent of the fault on Dr. Sachin Lavania, who treated Lockhart in the ICU.
Bell said he negotiated a $1 million policy limit settlement after the verdict with Lavania’s defense lawyer, Robert Tanner of Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial. Tanner could not be reached.
The jury found Lockhart herself three percent of the fault. The small fraction apportioned to her was a victory for Lockhart, as was the jury’s reaction to her, Bell said.
“Connie was so joyful when she heard the words, ‘We find for the plaintiff,’” Bell said. “She was crying. The jury was hugging her and kissing her on the cheek. It was a wonderful moment for her.”
But that’s not the end.
Bell said the jury was confused by the absence of a key defendant on the jury form.
“We’re going to have to appeal the issue with Dr. Bloom,” Bell said. “It was just extremely frustrating under the circumstances to go through a 2½ week trial in which all of our experts survived challenges, and then at the 11th hour to have a judge determine that our expert critical care doctor could not legally give opinions against an emergency room physician. It was very disappointing that the posture of the case was disrupted.”
Bell said he believes the judge was wrong. His trial partner, Summerville—an appellate specialist—will handle the appeal.
Weathington said he believes the judge was correct.
“It’s very rare, and it’s very courageous, for a judge to issue a directed verdict,” Weathington said. “We’re gonna fight like hell to uphold Judge Morrison.”
The case is Lockhart v. Bloom, No. 16EV003451.