$47M verdict against Conemaugh, doctor likely will be reduced, experts say

The Tribune Democrat
Sunday, April 1, 2018

By Randy Griffith

The jaw-dropping $47 million verdict handed down March 22 against Conemaugh Health System and one of its physicians marks only one step in the case, legal experts say.

Although the health system and its attorney have not announced the defendants’ next move, the decision will most certainly be appealed, said Joanne Doroshow, executive director for the Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School.

The $47 million verdict awarded Thursday to the family of a Texas girl who sustained lasting scalp injuries after she was born at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in 2012 included $43,750,000 in “past and future non-economic damages,” according to a copy of the jury verdict slip obtained by The Tribune-Democrat.

The defendants can ask U.S. District Court Judge Kim R. Gibson to reduce the jury award or they can file an appeal for a hearing or new trial, Doroshow said. 

“It will very likely cause the amount of money to be severely reduced,” Doroshow said. 

“These awards almost never survive a post-verdict decision.”

That doesn’t mean there is no justification for the huge award, said attorney James A. Wells, a member of the Medicine and Law committee of the American Bar Association’s Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section.

“The award means it was determined by the jury that there was a real case,” he said in a telephone interview from his Philadelphia office. “There was real harm. Those are the last people we should be shortchanging.”

In awarding the verdict, the jury found longtime neonatal specialist Dr. John Chan was negligent when he wrapped the top of the child’s swollen head with a bandage after she was born. The move caused her sensitive scalp tissue to break down, leaving her partially bald and scarred.

Ian Harker and Corradina Baldacchino, parents of the girl, who is now 5, testified they worried she might not ever get a date for her senior prom, or even marry. 

Medical procedures promote new skin growth, but give her head an unnatural appearance. Because she is more susceptible to trauma, she will never be able to ride a bike, swim or roller skate, witnesses testified. 

The award included more than $3 million for past and future medical expenses, based on an expectation the girl will live another 78 years. The remaining $43 million-plus was for non-economic damages. 

Calling it “pain and suffering” oversimplifies the award, Doroshow said. 

“When you say ‘non-economic damages,’ it covers many different kinds of damage,” she said. “It is quality-of-life damage – what the (medical) care did to the life of this this child. 

“It covers a whole lot of different things. It is a value on the life this child is going to have to live now as the result of the care she received.”

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