Jury Awards Lobsterman more than $800K in MedMal Case

by Julie D. Farr, Esq. for Maine Lawyers Review

In a trial presided over by Justice Ann Murray of the Penobscot County Superior Court, a jury on December 12, 2019, awarded a verdict of $848,866.64 in favor of Stephen Robbins, a fifth generation lobster fisherman from Stonington. The verdict was against Dr. Rafael Grossman and Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC), now known as Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Plaintiff was represented in the matter by Travis Brennan and Julian Sweet of Berman & Simmons in Lewiston, while defendants were represented by Edward Gould of Gross, Minsky & Mogul in Bangor.

Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that Stephen Robbins developed a left inguinal hernia while working as a lobsterman in late 2015 or early 2016, for which he sought treatment at EMMC’s Emergency Department on March 25, 2016. He alleged that after examination, the ER physician referred him to Dr. Grossman for a surgical consultation, following which Dr. Grossman recommended surgical repair.

On April 15, 2016, Dr. Grossman performed an open left inguinal hernia repair with mesh on Robbins, and Robbins returned to work lobstering that following summer. However, Robbins alleged that in early 2017, he experienced a recurrence of pain and went back to Dr. Grossman, who diagnosed a recurrent left inguinal hernia and performed a laparascopic repair on May 17, 2017. Robbins alleged that during that surgery, Dr. Grossman noted that the previously-placed mesh had migrated laterally, and placed a new mesh patch to cover the area. The complaint alleged that Dr. Grossman wrote in his operative reports that “the mesh was positioned so that the Seprafilm side was facing the inside of the peritoneal cavity.”

Robbins claimed that five days following that surgery, he experienced an acute onset of vomiting and abdominal pain for which he sought treatment at the Emergency Department at New London Hospital in New London, NH. After a CT scan of his abdomen and pelvis, Dr. Sean Bears diagnosed an incarcerated hernia with small bowel obstruction, and took Robbins to surgery that same day.

Robbins’ complaint alleged that Dr. Bears found that the hernia sac was filled with fluid, and found an area of dilated bowel that was densely adhered to the mesh on the left side of the pelvis. “Dr. Bears noted that the mesh had been placed with the nonadherent, coated side of the Seprafilm on the peritoneal surface and the polypropylene, non-coated side of the mesh facing the bowel.” As a result, Robbins alleged, the bowel had adhered to the mesh, which was the site of the obstruction.

Robbins claimed that, thereafter, he experienced continuing complaints of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain that required further hospitalization; and he became weakened and anxious about the physical demands of returning to work as a commercial lobster fisherman. He alleged that, as a result, he became depressed and was hospitalized for more than a month at Acadia Hospital, and was unable to return to his work as a lobsterman following his May 2017 surgery with Dr. Grossman.

According to Robbins’ counsel, Travis Brennan, Dr. Grossman and EMMC denied fault up until the eve of trial, although at trial they conceded that the mesh had been installed improperly. Brennan also said that defendants “vigorously argued” that Robbins’ hospitalization at Acadia Hospital was not caused by defendants’ negligence, but rather was caused by preexisting issues.

Brennan recommended, at trial, that the jury award between $1.75 million and $2.5 million, while Gould on behalf of defendants recommended that the jury award $200,000. Brennan said the jury’s award of $848,866.64 included damages for medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional distress, and permanent scarring. Brennan commented that “this is what the medical field refers to as a ‘Never Event’ because it is a type of error that should never happen. We are pleased that in Steve’s case, the jury appreciated the importance of holding the defendants accountable.”

Gould deferred comment to Suzanne Spruce, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Northern Light Health. In a statement, Spruce said, “Northern Light Health and all of its member organizations strive to achieve the highest standard of patient safety possible. Although perfection remains elusive, this is nonetheless our goal. When mistakes happen, Northern Light Health endeavors to ensure that the affected patient receives the best care possible to address any unintended complications arising from the error.

“In this case, Northern Light Health was forthright in admitting that a mistake had been made and offered what it felt was a fair and reasonable amount to the affected patient to compensate him for his unfortunate ordeal. After the patient rejected its offer, Northern Light Health determined to let the jury decide, after hearing all of the evidence, what amount was fair and reasonable to make the patient whole. The patient sought in excess of $3,000,000 from the jury. The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $848, 866.64. Resolving cases such as this is precisely what our civil justice system was designed to accomplish. It did its job in this case and Northern Light Health will abide by its decision.”

Julie D. Farr, julief@mainelawyersreview.com

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