The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a record $10 million judgment last week on a Mobile County jury's verdict for the family of a man who died at Springhill Medical Center following successful surgery to repair a cut on his thumb.
$10 million is the largest amount ever affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court for a single wrongful death.
According to a press release from the Cunningham Bounds Law Firm, while using a table saw at his cabinet shop in 2014, Jay West cut the tip of his left thumb. He drove to Springhill Medical Center, where his thumb was surgically repaired. Following that successful 20-minute surgery without any complications, the surgeon wrote an order for Percocet for pain and another order for up to four milligrams of IV Dilaudid (a powerful opioid) if the Percocet failed to control the pain. He was transferred to the hospital's orthopedic floor for the night and scheduled to go home the next day. However, less than 10 hours after surgery, West was found unresponsive and not breathing in his hospital room and could not be resuscitated.
According to Cunningham Bounds, West had been given four milligrams of IV Dilaudid by his nurse. Less than two hours later, she administered an additional four milligrams of the drug. After the second dose, West was not monitored by any of the nursing staff. He was later found unresponsive.
"Mrs. West deeply values the dedication and bravery demonstrated by every juror involved in the case. She expresses her heartfelt gratitude for the Alabama Supreme Court's affirmance of the Mobile County Circuit Court's rulings. After a nine-year journey, justice has at last been served for her husband's tragic and entirely avoidable death," said Brian Duncan of Cunningham Bounds, who represented the family along with his law partners Robert Mitchell and David Wirtes.
A Mobile Circuit Court jury had previously awarded a much-higher judgment of $35 million in the case. The trial court later reduced that amount to $10 million.
Alabama Supreme Court Justice Greg Shaw said in an opinion on the case last week, "There is clear evidence in this case of systemic conduct that amounted to serious deviations from the standards of care applicable to both Springhill Hospitals, Inc., d/b/a [doing business as] Springhill Memorial Hospital, and its employee, Nurse Jane Elenwa, which led directly and unnecessarily to a person's death."
"The conduct at issue in this case cannot be said to be less serious than that in Bednarski, our most recent decision. Although a damages award that exceeds past awards will certainly have to be examined carefully, all such awards in these kinds of cases ultimately are based on an assessment of numerous unique and changing variables," Shaw said. "Given the nature of juries and the power given to them within our system of justice to assess punishment in wrongful-death cases, different juries will almost never agree on whether a certain kind of conduct is deserving of more or less punishment. This Court must then review awards, like those in Boudreaux, Bednarski, and this case. There is no precise formula for determining whether a punitive-damages award exceeds constitutional boundaries. In the absence of any limits set by the legislature based on public-policy concerns, the best this Court can do is to carefully examine our constitutional guideposts and try to avoid subjectivity. My goal in these kinds of cases has always been to show respect for a jury's decision and at the same time try to act as a "circuit breaker" when it is clear to me that a jury's award, given the findings that the jury was entitled to make from the evidence, cannot be reasonably or constitutionally sustained. That is not always an easy call to make. It is not difficult to call a foul on the jury's $35 million award in this case, and the trial court did so. It is far more difficult to conclude, given this Court's affirmance of the remitted punitive damages award in Bednarski, that the remitted amount here unconstitutionally reaches over a line existing beyond the award in that decision. There will inevitably be future awards in these kinds of cases that must be reduced by this Court to satisfy due-process concerns. In my view, this is not one of those cases."
Alabama Supreme Court Justice Greg Cook said he concurred fully "with the main opinion's thorough analysis regarding the liability of Springhill Hospitals, Inc., d/b/a Springhill Memorial Hospital ("SMH"), in this case. The facts are tragic and the evidence is overwhelming. However, I respectfully dissent as to the affirmance of the award of punitive damages in the amount of $10 million."
"Affirming the trial court's $10 million punitive-damages award in this case will raise the highest medical-malpractice punitive-damages award ever affirmed in Alabama from $6.5 million to $10 million," Cook said. "This is a 54% increase (before considering inflation) over our highest award ever (at least post-Gore and for over 30 years). And, less than two years ago, we affirmed the award in Bednarski, which was a 60% increase over the previous highest award ever in a medical-malpractice case. In other words, in less than two years, we will have moved the highest medical malpractice award ever upheld by this Court from $4 million to $10 million — an increase of a total of 150%. Some might object to this math and argue (I think correctly) that inflation must be considered; however, even considering inflation, this award is still significantly higher than the award in Bednarski. For example, if we adjust the $6.5 million award in Bednarski for inflation, the increased award would be $7.15 million. A $10 million award in this case would still represent an increase of 40%. And, comparing the inflation-adjusted highest award before September 2021 (Boudreaux — $5.2 million) to a $10 million award in this case still produces an increase of 92% in less than two years."
Bryan Taylor, a candidate for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, told 1819 News on Wednesday, "I was surprised when I read the decision."
"I think Justice Cook's dissent clearly makes the argument that this ruling defies the Constitutional guideposts that limit punitive damage awards. Even in tragic cases like this one, the Constitutional guideposts are there to promote predictability and stability in the law, and consistency across the courts," Taylor said. "Not only that, decisions like this may contribute to higher health care costs for all of us and are not in the public interest."
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.
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