CUMBERLAND — A $7 million verdict rendered by an Allegany County jury after a nine-day trial in a medical malpractice case earlier this month was appropriate given the harm caused to a baby after her heart stopped and she suffered brain damage, said Kathleen Howard Meredith, the attorney who brought the suit.
Meredith praised the six-member jury. “They were remarkably alert and concentrated carefully on the testimony,” Meredith said. “I thought it was a strong case.”
The child involved, Madison Henry, born in 2008, is severely disabled as a result of brain damage caused by her heart stopping. She is now 5.
The suit was filed by Robert and Kate Henry of Frostburg on behalf of Madison against pediatrician Dr. Michael Levitas and Children’s Medical Group P.A. of Cumberland.
The jury consisted of five women and one man. It included two educators, one nurse and two of the remaining three were college educated as well. Another juror was a high school graduate, Meredith said. It took about six hours for the jury to reach a verdict, which was issued on Oct. 18. The first trial in 2012 ended in a hung jury, according to court records.
A portion of the verdict was for non-economic damages for pain and suffering of $1 million. That will be automatically reduced to $695,000 under state law, said Meredith.
“I think it is a large verdict, but with these kinds of injuries, there have been larger verdicts in the state,” Meredith said. With early enough diagnosis and surgery, the condition could have been corrected, Meredith said.
Defense attorney Conrad Varner challenged the verdict and the jury’s ability to understand the case.
“The jury’s verdict is significant because it makes the case for much needed reform of Maryland medical malpractice law. First, in a brain-damaged baby case, the issues are of such complexity that it cannot be expected that juries with limited education can possibly understand the issues, especially when their knowledge of the medicine comes from highly paid biased experts,” Varner said in a written statement.
Despite the verdict, Conrad maintains no mistakes were made.
“Dr. Levitas did nothing wrong, was not negligent, and did not violate the standard of care. He is a well-respected and competent physician well-known and highly regarded in Cumberland. In this case, the issue involved a rare congenital heart condition that did not manifest itself until the baby’s heart went into failure,” Conrad said.
The condition Madison was born with is called coarctation of the aorta.
At birth, the heart condition cannot be detected but quickly becomes worse, Meredith said. Madison was brought to Children’s Medical Group twice for examinations, and both times a nurse recorded a high heart rate. The normal heart rate for a baby is between 130-160 beats per minute.
In two visits to Levitas’ office, Madison’s rate was recorded at 184 and 192 beats per minute, according to the complaint filed in the suit. The examinations took place within a few days of each other shortly after the child’s birth.
On April 3, Madison was not breathing well and her mother sought emergency help. Because of weather, ground transport was used to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore and the child had to be revived during the trip. Her heart also stopped during the surgery to repair the aorta, the compliant stated.
Levitas did not remember the baby or either examination, Meredith said.
While congenital heart defects are indeed rare, the aortic condition is one of the more common heart defects, Meredith said.
Whether the pediatrician committed malpractice by failing to refer the baby to a pediatric cardiologist because of an irregular heartbeat was the key issue in the case, said Meredith. “I want to make clear that Dr. Levitas ... was not expected to diagnose this,” said Meredith.
The problem could have been diagnosed with an echocardiogram, which is essentially an ultrasound of the heart and aorta, Meredith said.
The key disagreements were over whether the excessive heart rate was persistent or sporadic and what the physician should have done next because of the high heart rate, Meredith said.
The case was tried before Circuit Court Judge Gary Leasure beginning on Oct. 7.
Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.