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Jury Awards $9 Million Verdict Against Doctors

LAS VEGAS, N.M. – A Raton woman who suffered severe heart damage after her heart attack went undiagnosed for more than a day in 2006 won a multi-million judgment against three doctors on Friday.

A San Miguel County jury found the three physicians – Misbah Zmily of Raton, Stephanie Hedstrom of Albuquerque,  and Lee Caruana of Raton – negligent in their handling of Bryanna Baker’s medical treatment. The eight-woman, four-man jury set compensatory damages at $9 million. Miners’ Colfax Medical Center was also among the original defendants in the case, but settled some time ago.”The most important part is that the jury verdict made things safer for the community,” Randi McGinn, one of Baker’s attorneys, said Friday afternoon.

She said emergency rooms and hospitals across the state should take notice of the verdict and if they’re not already doing so, institute a practice of quickly administering EKGs to patients who show up complaining of crushing chest pain.

Baker, who is now 29, was pregnant when she suffered her heart attack in November 2006. She lost her baby and is no longer able to have children. Her attorney also told jurors that Baker’s heart was severely damaged, and she will likely need two heart transplants. She first went to Miners’ Colfax Medical Center in Raton after experiencing severe crushing chest pain, among other symptoms, was transferred to Alta Vista Regional Medical Center in Las Vegas by ambulance, and eventually ended up at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.

McGinn said that despite the verdict, the law caps the amount that Baker can collect from each of the physicians at $600,000, meaning that she’ll only be able to collect $1.8 million. McGinn said she plans to file an appeal challenging the constitutionality of the cap.

Baker will also get all her future medical bills paid from a patient compensation fund. McGinn estimated that those future medical costs would amount to $5 million.

Judge Abigail Aragon presided over the marathon three-week trial in state District Court in Las Vegas. The case initially had multiple defendants, including Alta Vista Regional Medical Center, regents of the University of New Mexico and Las Vegas physicians Cordell Halverson and Gwen Teekell.

Alta Vista hospital, the University of New Mexico, and Miners’ Colfax Medical Center settled out of court. Halverson and Teekell were dismissed from the lawsuit before trial.” Alta Vista Regional Hospital is pleased that we were able to reach a settlement in this case,” hospital spokesman Mathew Martinez said in an e-mail. “The terms of the settlement are confidential. We wish Ms. Baker the best.”It’s unclear how much the University of New Mexico and Miners’ Colfax Medical Center settled for, though a state Risk Management 2010 annual report reveals that a Bryanna Baker received a $690,029.94 check on Sept. 24, 2009.

Closing arguments in the case began Thursday afternoon and wrapped up at about 11 a.m. Friday.”The one thing we shouldn’t have to fear is our medical care,” McGinn told jurors, adding that one should be able to take a loved one to an emergency room and not worry whether a doctor knows the basic ABCs of medicine. She argued that Zmily, an emergency room doctor in Raton, was the person most responsible for what happened to Baker, accusing him of abandoning her as she was having severe crushing chest pain so that he could go back to his office and see patients who were not as ill as Baker.

She said that by the time Baker arrived at Alta Vista, the classic heart attack symptoms had changed, and that’s why doctors there were unable to diagnose her and the reason those doctors were dropped from the lawsuit. Hedstrom supervised the doctor who saw Baker a year before her heart attack when an abnormal lab result indicated she had a potentially life-threatening condition.

McGinn argued that Hedstrom should have done more to ensure that Baker knew the seriousness of the lab result. Caruana, who McGinn said was the least culpable of the three, was named in the suit because he was the physician who referred Baker to the specialist – the doctor-supervised by Hedstrom – and he failed to take action when he saw the dramatically abnormal lab result, McGinn argued.

Defense attorneys for Zmily, Hedstrom, and Caruana each took turns hammering away at McGinn’s case. Jennifer Hall, the attorney representing Zmily, pointed out that Baker showed up to the emergency room in Raton with multiple symptoms, not just crushing chest pain, and that heart attacks are rare among 24-year-old women. If the diagnosis was so easy, Hall asked jurors, why was it that so many well-meaning physicians at Miners’ Colfax Medical Center, at Alta Vista Regional Medical Center and at the University of New Mexico Hospital missed the heart attack.”

The doctors who treated her didn’t have the benefit of hindsight,” she told jurors. Ann Maggiore, the attorney representing Hedstrom, argued that Hedstrom had done everything she was supposed to do to ensure that Baker was aware of the potentially serious condition she had, including mailing a packet of information to her. ”Patients have some responsibilities for their own health as well,” she said during her closing.

Lorri Krehbiel, the attorney for Caruana, said doctors ordering tests are the ones responsible for following up.” Dr. Caruana was not negligent, and the evidence shows Dr. Caruana was not negligent,” Krehbiel argued. Baker sat quietly in the courtroom Thursday afternoon as attorneys began to wrap up their cases. She was sick on Friday and was not present when the case was handed to the jury. 


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