A former Franklin County couple were awarded the largest malpractice judgment - $22.2 million - in the history of Tennessee on Friday in a federal courtroom in Chattanooga.
The jury, in a trial that began on Jan. 20, decided to give 62-year-old Bette Donathan $19.2 million after the surgery that was supposed to repair her broken lower right leg resulted in a spinal bleed that left her paralyzed from the waist down, according to court documents and her Nashville attorney, Randy Kinnard.
The jury also awarded Mrs. Donathan's husband, Ben, a $3 million judgment, court documents show. The Donathans had sought $24 million.
"I am so happy for my clients," said Mr. Kinnard on Friday evening, adding that the Donathans now live in Montana, where Mrs. Donathan is a native.
Mr. Kinnard said the couple were in an auto accident on April 11, 2006, in Winchester, Tenn., and her leg was broken. On April 13, 2006, as she was prepared for surgery at the Southern Tennessee Medical Center in Winchester medical workers inserted a epidural catheter for post-operative pain control.
"We contended that catheter should never have been inserted, because she was on blood thinner because she had a mechanical heart valve," Mr. Kinnard said.
Medical officials should have considered the increased risk she would have of bleeding internally into the spinal canal when the catheter was removed.
"No one knows who made the decision to insert it, and the consent form is missing from the (medical) record," Mr. Kinnard said.
Arthur Brock and John B. Bennett, the Chattanooga attorneys who defended Winchester anesthesiologist Ronald Gordon, nurse anesthetist Christopher Will and Cumberland Healthcare Group, did not return calls seeking comment Friday afternoon and evening.
Nashville attorney Michael Geracioti, who defended Winchester surgeon Delores K. White, also could not be reached for comment.
In court briefings before trial, they denied any negligence by their clients.
Mr. Kinnard said the catheter was removed on a Saturday, and Mrs. Donathan awoke on Sunday morning to intense pain - the result of the blood placing pressure in her spinal canal.
Hospital officials didn't realize what the problem was and gave her pain-killing drugs, her attorney said. On Monday morning, she could no longer move her legs.
Mr. Kinnard said she was transferred to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, but it was too late to reverse the damage.
"This should never have happened," Mr. Kinnard said. "She went in with the a broken lower leg and came out a paraplegic."
The Chattanooga jury found that the surgeon, Dr. White, was 50 percent at fault. They also found anesthesiologist, Dr. Gordon, was 40 percent at fault, and Mr. Will, the nurse anesthetist, was 5 percent at fault. The jury additionally said Cumberland Health Care Group - which employed the anesthesiology workers - was 5 percent at fault, Mr. Kinnard said.
"That means each is responsible in the judgment at that percentage," Mr. Kinnard said.
The verdict follows another record-setting malpractice judgment last May in Chattanooga.
In that case, a Hamilton County jury has lodged a $12 million medical malpractice judgment against gastroenterologist Michael Goodman, after a colonoscopy and endoscopy left 33-year-old Kristen Freeman so brain-damaged she can no longer care for herself.
Attorney Matt Dwyer, an Atlanta personal injury trial lawyer who sued for Ms. Freeman, said the May judgment was believed to be the largest awarded in a malpractice case in Hamilton County.