Date of Verdict: October 24.
Court and Case No.: C.P. Luzerne No. 10467-CV-2010.
Judge: Thomas F. Burke.
Type of Action: Negligence, wrongful death/survivor.
Plaintiffs Attorneys: Michael J. Pisanchyn Jr. and Douglas Yazinski, The Pisanchyn Law Firm, Scranton.
Defense Counsel: John T. McGrath Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Moosic, Pa.; Mark Sheridan, Margolis Edelstein, Scranton.
Plaintiffs Experts:Stephen Bachrach, cerebral palsy; Illene Warner-Maron, group home regulations; Dr. Cataldo Doria, transplant surgery, Philadelphia.
Comment: A Luzerne County jury has awarded more than $3 million to the estate of a disabled woman who died from injuries related to a car accident she was in while under the care of a Pennsylvania group home. The group home, according to court papers, did not disclose the accident to doctors until two days after it took place.
Instead, court records show, it allowed the woman, who could not speak, to attend a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment the day after the accident under the presumption no collision had happened.
According to court filings, Barbara A. Maines suffered from cerebral palsy and was a resident of Hope Enterprises Foundation Inc. in Berwick, Pa. In September 2009, a Hope Enterprises employee was driving a van with Maines as one of his passengers when he collided at an intersection with another vehicle.
Instead of contacting emergency personnel, according to the lawsuit, the center waited until the next day to bring Maines to her doctor’s appointment to have her feeding tube examined. It was during that visit that Maines become unstable and was transferred to the emergency room, where doctors discovered her stomach was tender and distended. Maines, who could not speak because of her cerebral palsy, was "moaning and whimpering" throughout the day.
(Hope records indicated that Maines had been similarly "moaning and grunting" on the way to the hospital.)
It wasn’t until the next day, two days after the accident, the plaintiffs alleged, that a manager of Hope Enterprises told doctors Maines had been in a collision. After an investigational stomach procedure (and a successful resuscitation), the woman died three days after the accident from internal bleeding associated with a lacerated liver.
"Hope Corp. nor anyone on its behalf ever advised the hospital that [Maines] was involved in a motor vehicle collision until close to two days after the motor vehicle collision," the plaintiffs pled in a pretrial statement.
The verdict, which will be split between Maines’ siblings and mother, was handed down October 24. The jury pegged 90 percent of the negligence on Hope Enterprises and the remaining 10 percent on William Birt, the Hope employee who was driving the van at the time of the accident.
The jury debated for about an hour the day after the verdict to add punitive damages to the award, according to the estate’s attorney.
"This case was about trust versus betrayal," said Michael J. Pisanchyn Jr., the estate’s attorney.
In a phone interview, Pisanchyn said the caregivers from Hope Enterprises, whom the family thanked in Maines’ obituary, were the same individuals who declined to tell medical professionals that the disabled woman had been in a car accident.
"You can say you love somebody, but your actions speak louder," Pisanchyn said.
The defense theory of the case essentially was that the crash was low impact and Hope representatives never connected the dots, according to a pretrial memorandum filed by Birt, the driver, and Hope Enterprises.
Pisanchyn said those defendants never offered anything north of $400,000, while the plaintiffs had demanded, without specifying an exact number, more than $1 million.
A third defendant, Heather Peters, who was driving the car the van collided into, was cleared by the jury.
Mark Sheridan, who represented Hope Enterprises and Birt, did not return a call requesting comment.
Peters’ attorney, John T. McGrath Jr., declined comment beyond saying:
"My client really didn’t do anything wrong and the defense verdict as far as she was concerned was justified. She just happened to be in the wrong place in the wrong time."
The plaintiffs had pled two counts of negligence, one for Peters and one for both Hope and Birt. Among the assertions in the negligence count against Hope and Birt was that those defendants owed Maines a duty to take her to be treated for possible injuries when she could not speak or contact doctors on her own.
The estate also pled negligent entrustment, breach of contract, and wrongful death/survival counts. The estate included a count for punitive damages, which materialized.
Pisanchyn said the plaintiffs had filed for delay damages somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000.
— Ben Present, of the Law Weekly