BANGOR, Maine — A Penobscot County jury on Tuesday awarded a Millinocket couple nearly $1.8 million after deliberating about three hours in a weeklong medical malpractice trial at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
John Pierce, 71, and his wife, Clara Pierce, 63, sued St. Joseph Hospital, his physician, Dr. Edward Dunstan, and Millinocket Regional Hospital, where the doctor is employed, in 2012 in Penobscot County Superior Court.
The civil trial began Jan. 19 at the Penobscot Judicial Center before Superior Court Justice William Anderson.
The couple claimed the results of a blood test ordered the night of May 31, 2010, when John Pierce visited St. Joseph Hospital’s emergency room, were never sent to Dunstan, and that in spite of Pierce’s continued complaints, the doctor never asked for them. Eight months later, Pierce underwent emergency heart surgery at Eastern Maine Medical Center to repair damage that could have been avoided if treatment had begun when the test was completed.
The Pierces’ attorney, Benjamin Gideon of Lewiston, sought between $3 million and $3.7 million in his closing statement to jurors.
“We’re pleased with the outcome and thankful for the hard work and time put in by the jury,” Gideon said in a news release after the verdict was announced. “At its core, this case was about more than John and Clara Pierce. It was about a problem in health care that affects everyone, the lack of communication between providers, with results that can be catastrophic.
“Maine families put their trust in our state’s doctors and hospitals to communicate with the same level of care and concern they would expect for their own loved ones,” Gideon said. “When that trust is broken, it’s important to hold individuals and institutions accountable.”
The jury found by an 8-1 vote that the hospitals and the doctor were negligent, but it also concluded that John Pierce was negligent. Jurors awarded the couple $600,000 for medical expenses, $500,000 for pain and suffering, and $1 million for permanent injury but reduced the $2.1 million total award by $315,000 because of Pierce’s own negligence.
Six of the nine jurors had to agree to the verdict and the damages award.
The total award of $1.785 million could be reduced. Attorneys for Dunstan and the hospitals moved that the amount for medical expenses be reduced from $600,000 to $293,867. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defense had agreed before the trial that Pierce’s medical expenses because of the test results not being sent were $293,867. Anderson asked for written motions on the disparity.
St. Joseph Hospital attorney James Martemucci of Portland told the jury last week in his opening statement, “We made a mistake [in not sending the test results to Pierce’s doctor].”
He told jurors that changes had been made to avoid having such an error happen to another patient. Hospital staff now not only send test results to the offices of primary care physicians but also call doctors’ offices with results, Martemucci said.
Pierce testified Thursday that he remembered a nurse calling him the day after his emergency room visit but not what was said. The nurse’s note of the conversation showed that she told him the test result was positive and that it was a very serious condition. She urged Pierce to return to the hospital, but he refused.
“Did Mr. Pierce bear a certain level of responsibility to come back to the hospital when she called him on June 1, , and told him to?” Martemucci asked jurors.
Dunstan’s note from Pierce’s visit on June 4, 2010, indicated that Pierce told him the blood tests were negative, Mark Lavoie, the Portland attorney representing the doctor and the Millinocket hospital, said Tuesday in his closing argument.
“When you don’t have a positive blood culture, this is a very difficult diagnosis,” he said. “In August , he went looking for cancer.
“If there’s one thing you come away from this trial with, it is that Dr. Dunstan is someone who really cares about his patients,” Lavoie said. “In hindsight, he realized he was wrong [not to ask for the results].”
Pierce, who appeared in the courtroom for the first time Thursday, told the jury his symptoms began nearly six years ago in the spring. During direct examination, Pierce told his lawyer he felt like he had the flu with a low-grade fever and extreme fatigue.
“I would feel good in the morning and at 3 [p.m.], I’d start feeling bad and go to bed,” he said. “Sometimes, I’d get up for supper and, other times, I’d sleep until morning.”
He said that while he still can do most things he could do before he became ill, “it’s a struggle.”
The jury of five women and four men had to decide whether it is more likely than not that each defendant was negligent in treating Pierce and that the negligence damaged him. It also had to decide the amount of damages to award but not how much each defendant would have to pay. That will be up to the parties and judge to determine.