Date of Verdict: September 14.
Court and Case No.: C.P. Delaware No. 04-2072.
Judge: James Proud.
Type of Action: Medical malpractice.
Injuries:Eclampsia, stroke, cerebral palsy.
Plaintiffs Counsel:Dion G. Rassias, The Beasley Firm, Philadelphia.
Plaintiffs Experts:Dr. Albert G. Thomas, obstetrics, New York; Dr. Marianne Schuelein, neurology, Washington, D.C.
Defense Counsel: Kevin H. Wright, Kevin H. Wright & Associates, Lansdale.
Defense Experts:Dr. Ronald Bolognese, liability, Philadelphia; Dr. Robert A. Zimmerman, neuroradiology, Philadelphia; Dr. Agustin Legido, neurology, Philadelphia.
Comment: A unanimous 12-member jury awarded $3.75 million to the parents of a minor who suffered brain damage in utero when her mother suffered an eclamptic episode near the end of her pregnancy.
The verdict came down following the second of two trials. The case was originally tried and resulted in a defense verdict in 2009, but the state Superior Court vacated the award and remanded for a new trial after the plaintiffs argued that the jury had been improperly charged regarding negligence.
According to the plaintiffs’ pretrial memorandum from the original trial — new memorandums were not filed prior to the second trial — plaintiff Kathy Sheward suffered an eclamptic episode while 34 weeks pregnant in September 2002, causing the fetus to suffer brain damage and to eventually be diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Sheward had called defendant obstetrician Dr. Carolyn Costanzi a few hours prior to the eclamptic episode, complaining of a headache, and Costanzi advised her to take extra-strength Tylenol, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
The plaintiffs alleged in their memorandum that Sheward also informed Costanzi that she had experienced swelling and weight gain to the point that her wedding rings needed to be cut off.
At some point after that call, Costanzi suffered an eclamptic seizure, the plaintiffs’ memorandum said.
The next morning, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum, Sheward was found unconscious on her kitchen floor and was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she underwent a cesarean section and brain surgery.
As a result of the eclamptic episode, Sheward’s daughter, Amanda, was born prematurely and suffered a stroke, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
The defense, in its own pretrial memorandum, said that when Sheward called Costanzi, she complained of a headache and diarrhea and mainly wanted to know whether she could take Tylenol.
According to the defense’s memorandum, Costanzi asked several follow-up questions, including how long and how severe her headache was, whether the baby was moving and whether she had abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting.
Costanzi recalled Sheward saying she’d had the headache for a few hours and that it was not very severe, according to the defense’s memorandum.
Costanzi also recalled Sheward saying she did not have blurred vision, abdominal or uterine pain, that the diarrhea had started the night before and that she was able to keep liquids down, the defense said in its memorandum.
Costanzi recommended extra-strength Tylenol, believing Sheward had a virus, according to the defense memorandum.
According to plaintiffs counsel Dion G. Rassias, the plaintiffs’ liability expert, Dr. Albert G. Thomas, opined that Sheward should have been immediately evaluated once she reported a headache along with swelling of the hands and feet.
The plaintiffs’ causation expert, Dr. Marianne Schuelein, opined that the failure to immediately treat Sheward resulted in intensive hypertension, causing her arteries to constrict and restricting blood flow to the placenta, causing the fetus to have a stroke, according to Rassias.
The defense’s liability expert, Dr. Ronald Bolognese, opined that Costanzi had met the standard of care, according to court documents.
However, according to Rassias, several jurors told him post-trial that the turning point in the trial was his cross-examination of defense expert Dr. Robert A. Zimmerman, who, based on his review of an ultrasound, had suggested that the baby’s stroke could have occurred the day before Sheward’s eclamptic episode.
On cross-examination, Rassias pointed to the fact that Zimmerman was not Sheward’s treating physician and that he was paid as a defense expert to review the ultrasound.
Rassias called the trial a “very enjoyable” experience, noting that Delaware County has in recent years become a difficult jurisdiction for plaintiffs lawyers to try medical malpractice cases.
Rassias said the verdict is now worth more than $5 million with delay damages.
The defense’s attorney, Kevin H. Wright, could not be reached for comment at press time.
— Zack Needles, of the Law Weekly