JUSTIN GEORGE and COLLEEN JENKINS
TAMPA – Sally Lucia, a mother of three who lost her fingers and feet after complications of tummy tuck surgery, deserves $30-million, a jury in a malpractice suit said Friday.But it will be up to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder to sort out how much of that is owed by a former Tampa doctor and a hospital.
Defense attorneys predicted that Lucia, 47, would get somewhere between $12-million and $16-million, while her own attorneys declined to name figures.
Holder must now make sense of the jury’s parceling out of blame and the impact of Florida’s “Good Samaritan” law. That is expected to begin Wednesday.
Four women on the jury wouldn’t leave the courtroom without seeing Lucia privately and telling her they did everything they could to ensure justice was served. Afterward, teary-eyed, they declined to comment.
Lucia said the verdict left her “overwhelmed, but in a good way.” She said she was glad the trial was finally over.
Jurors assigned Memorial Hospital 40 percent blame, Dr. George Haedicke 20 percent blame and Dr. Charles McLaughlin 40 percent blame. McLaughlin reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount and was not on trial.
While Lucia viewed the verdict as a win, so did the attorney representing Haedicke.
While finding fault, jurors said Haedicke did not act with reckless disregard, which could give him immunity under the state’s “Good Samaritan” law.
The law protects emergency room doctors seeing patients in emergencies from malpractice judgements as long as a jury finds they didn’t act recklessly.
An hour before jurors reached their verdict, they told Holder they were deadlocked. The trial had taken three weeks. They had deliberated 17 hours. He ordered them to keep talking.
Lucia’s troubles culminated on Super Bowl Sunday 2001 when an ambulance carried her to Memorial Hospital in Tampa. She had undergone a tummy tuck 20 days earlier to repair abdominal muscle damage from three caesarean sections. Blood and fluid had collected in her wound. Her fingers were blue.
Her surgeon was out of town. Hospital staff called Haedicke, the on-call surgeon who was playing at a park with his children.
During closing arguments Wednesday, attorneys quibbled about what happened once doctor and patient met.
Steve Yerrid, Lucia’s attorney, said his client needed two things: fluids and surgery to clean out her wound. He argued that Haedicke spent too little time treating Lucia and left the hospital at one point to change his pants.
“The fact is, Dr. Haedicke didn’t want to be there,” Yerrid said.
Yerrid accused hospital staff of failing to administer and analyze tests quickly. The missteps, Yerrid said, sent Lucia’s body into a near-fatal tailspin.
Haedicke’s attorney, Brian Stokes, argued that Lucia’s decline began a day before she checked in. He said she arrived there in septic shock, an often-fatal condition. She had a high heart rate, fluctuating blood pressure and failing liver and kidneys, Stokes said.
Haedicke ordered consultations and drained fluid from her wound but felt she was too unstable for more surgery, Stokes said.
Stokes bristled at the suggestion that Haedicke was an uncaring physician who left a patient at her most vulnerable time. In fact, Haedicke never billed Lucia for his services, Stokes said.
“He rendered to Mrs. Lucia all the care that he could reasonably give her to save her life,” Stokes said. “And you know what? It worked. He saved her life.”
Everyone agreed that Lucia was near death when she transferred to Tampa General Hospital for further treatment.
Her fingers and feet could not be saved. In surgeries performed between March and May of 2001, doctors amputated both her legs below the calves and all of her fingers. She can grasp things only with a “pincher” that was left between her left thumb and pointer finger.
Lucia and her husband, Jerry, a tree trimmer, initially sued five doctors and Memorial Hospital. Everyone except Haedicke and the hospital settled for confidential amounts or was dropped from the suit before the trial.
Stokes said it was silly to blame Haedicke, who he said was involved in Lucia’s care for only 4 1/2 hours, and not the others who treated her.
Those other doctors were listed on the verdict form for jurors to assign blame, even though they could not be held liable. Jurors were not made aware of prior settlements.
They said Lucia was entitled to $1-million for past medical expenses, $150,000 for lost earnings or earning ability, $3.5-million for future medical expenses, $350,000 for lost earning ability in the future, $10-million for past pain and suffering, and $15-million for future pain and suffering.
Haedicke no longer practices in Tampa. Stokes said he moved to Tallahassee, spurred by the case and by personal problems to “slow down” and spend more time with his wife and four adopted children. He now works at a Veterans Affairs clinic.
“My client’s been exonerated,” Stokes said.
But Yerrid, Lucia’s attorney, wouldn’t concede.
“That remains to be seen,” he said.
His client sat nearby in a chair, saying she was happy the verdict tells hospitals to “hold the standard high” when it comes to care.
In what remains of her left hand, she clutched a tissue she used to wipe her eyes.
Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.