In a recent Alabama Supreme Court decision, Boudreaux v. Pettaway, the state’s high court upheld a $ 4 million medical malpractice/wrongful death claim.
In 2006, a 32-year-old mother, who had previously undergone gastric bypass surgery, arrived at Springhill Memorial Hospital in Mobile complaining of vomiting and abdominal pain. She died during an exploratory laporotomy.
The estate of Paulett Pettaway Hall sued Dr. Randall Boudreaux and other defendants, including Coastal Anesthesia for wrongful death and medical malpractice.
At trial, testimony was presented alleging that the anesthesiology staff employed a routine anesthetic induction, despite the aspiration risks given the patient’s medical history. The jury awarded $20 million in damages. The defendants requested a new trial or in the alternative a remittitur (request to lower the amount granted by the jury) of the damages award.
The court used a federal court and two Alabama court decisions (BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996), and the factors articulated in Hammond v. City of Gadsden, 493 So. 2d 1374 (Ala. 1986), and Green Oil Co. v. Hornsby, 539 So. 2d 218 (Ala. 1989) in reducing the award to $4 million. The court denied the defendants requests for a new trial though.
The Pettaway family accepted the reduced award of $4 million. However, the defendants jointly appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, alleging error in not granting a new trial or in the alternative in failing to reduce the jury award further. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s holdings.
“Given the defendant’s income and the strength of their bad-faith claim, as evaluated by the trial court, there is no evidence demonstrating that the current award will financially devastate the defendants,” the court wrote. “We conclude that the trial court correctly denied the defendant’s request for a new trial and appropriately refused to further remit the jury’s punitive damage award.”
This case brings up several important points for wrongful death attorneys. First, we frequently hear about tort reform and the alleged abuses of the system driving up medical costs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies show medical malpractice litigation has an impact of less than 10 percent on the overall cost of medical care — or about one year’s increase in premiums. Meanwhile, the medical community’s own estimates show about 100,000 patients a year die from preventable medical error. As we see here, there are already plenty of safeguards in the system in cases where a jury award is excessive. In this case the judge only granted 20 percent of what a reasoned jury of this woman’s peers felt she deserved after hearing all the facts.
The other issue this case illustrates perfectly is the lengths to which doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and their attorneys will go to avoid accepting responsibility for their actions. When choosing an Alabama personal injury or wrongful death law firm, be certain your firm has the experience and the resources to litigate your case to conclusion.
Small Plane Crashes an Autumn Risk in Alabama, By Cross & Smith, Sept. 25, 2012.