On Friday, July 29, 2016, an arbitration panel unanimously awarded nearly $4.3 million to the family of a young mother who lost her life due to a medical error at a Florida hospital. The young woman visited the hospital when she was 33 weeks pregnant complaining of shortness of breath. She was given oxygen when she arrived in the emergency room, but the hospital staff removed it. Her doctors failed to recognize her increasing oxygen loss, and after eight hours, she had so much trouble breathing that she began spitting up blood. An ER doctor finally decided that it was time to intubate, but by that time, she had suffered a serious brain injury that left her in a vegetative state for three months.
Her baby girl ended up having to be delivered by “slash and dash” in the emergency room with no anesthesia or sterility. The child lived and is now being raised by her father, but the mother tragically lost her life in November 2014.
The family was awarded approximately $1.4 million for loss of support, $1.81 million for loss of household services, and $23,000 in funeral expenses. They also received the statutory maximum of $250,000 for emotional damages. Although the family and their attorney, Robert W. Kelley, are satisfied with this award, they point out the injustice of Florida’s outdated medical malpractice laws, which place a cap on the non-economic damages available to medical malpractice victims and their families in arbitration. Mr. Kelley noted that on a level playing field, the case could potentially have been worth a substantial amount more.
Because of these laws, the family had no choice but to forego their constitutional right to a jury trial and accept the hospital’s offer to enter into binding arbitration. The family was represented in arbitration by Kelley/Uustal’s Bonnie Navin with assistance from Kimberly Wald.
Pursuant to Florida law, the cap on the child’s lifelong loss of her mother was set at only $250,000 – a grossly inadequate amount to compensate for the care, guidance, and support she would have received. “Given the unfair cap on non-economic damages, our primary goal in this case,” said Ms. Navin, “was to creatively build a credible and legal case for the amount of the family’s economic losses as a result of Patricia’s death.” This task, according to Navin, was made more difficult by the woman’s young age and the fact that she had not yet completed her nursing studies.
Attorneys Navin, Kelley, and Wald argued that a mother’s job is many jobs rolled into one: a tutor, a nurse, a nanny, and so much more. To replace the services the mother would have provided would have required her husband to hire several workers. Furthermore, she would have been a breadwinner had she had the opportunity to complete her nursing studies. The arbitration panel factored her ambition into the family’s award.
According to Ms. Wald, “I think Bonnie did a great job in helping the arbitrators understand and appreciate the immense economic value a woman has as both a mother and a wife, and the expert testimony offered by the plaintiffs on that issue was both compelling and convincing.” The arbitration, which took place in Fort Lauderdale, lasted three days.
Mr. Kelley commented that if the hospital attempts to appeal the arbitrators’ award, the firm will cross-appeal and ask the appellate court to toss out the cap on non-economic damages as unconstitutional.