A Spokane County jury awarded a quadriplegic woman $5.2 million in damages Tuesday after finding her surgeon guilty of malpractice.
Jurors, who were locked in deliberations for several days, said they felt tremendous sympathy for Norine Fitzgerald, who can’t move a muscle below her chin and needs a ventilator to help her breathe.
“We decided she deserved better,” said jury foreman Jay Sorenson. “The doctor could have done more.”
During the three-week Superior Court trial, Fitzgerald’s lawyers accused Dr. Ronald Vincent of waiting too long to operate on the woman’s injured spine five years ago.
Fitzgerald had been hurt when she fell from her horse on a riding trail west of Spokane.
It was a Saturday afternoon - June 9, 1990. She was taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Medical Center. Paralyzed from the waist down, her condition steadily worsened.
Three days later, when she was wheeled into surgery, she had become a quadriplegic for life.
After six months of rehabilitation at hospitals in Spokane and Seattle, Fitzgerald returned to her South Hill home, where she requires 24-hour nursing care.
The 41-year-old single woman was at home when the telephone call came late Tuesday, informing her of the verdict. She burst into tears.
“I’m very pleased,” she said later. “A little overwhelmed and excited.”
“It’s wonderful,” said her mother, Betty Fitzgerald. “The whole family is overjoyed because we worried about how she’ll be taken care of.”
The doctor’s lawyers, Dan Keefe and Jim King of Spokane, said Fitzgerald’s rapid deterioration was caused by a rare medical complication in spinal cord injuries that couldn’t be foreseen or prevented.
“We’re shocked and astounded by the verdict,” said King.
“This is a case where junk science - offered by two retired doctors who had not dealt with spinal cord trauma for years - misled a jury, which was apparently overcome by sympathy,” King said.
He said Vincent’s care was reviewed and supported by four of the nation’s leading experts on spinal trauma.
Vincent, a longtime Spokane neurosurgeon, maintained it would have been risky to have operated on the woman any sooner.
He said he immediately placed Fitzgerald in traction to realign her spine, using up to 50 pounds of weight. That effort, however, failed.
Attorneys Richard Eymann of Spokane and William Gaylord of Portland sought $7.7 million in damages on Fitzgerald’s behalf.
Prompt surgery could have limited the paralysis, they maintained.
“She would have at least had some function of her arms and shoulders,” Eymann said. “She could have even got better.”
Gaylord criticized Vincent for his acknowledged habit of ignoring nurses’ charts on his patients and for writing Fitzgerald off too soon.
“He characterized her as a hopeless case from Day 1,” Gaylord said.
At the time of the accident, Fitzgerald was employed as a design engineer, drawing plans for heating and cooling systems in large new buildings. She now is unable to work.
She can talk, but her speech is halting, interrupted for several seconds by each mechanically driven breath. She lives in fear that a power outage will knock out her ventilator, killing her.
“The only feeling she has in her body is in her face,” Eymann said.
Family members said the bulk of the money awarded by the jury will be used to pay nursing costs, estimated at $325,000 a year. There also are sizable unpaid medical bills.
But King plans to fight the verdict. He said he will ask Judge Richard Schroeder for a new trial.
The jury of five men and seven women began their deliberations late Thursday.
“Believe me, it wasn’t easy,” Sorenson said. “There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears in there.”
Sorenson said the jury initially was “split down the middle” on the negligence issue. Ten jurors, himself included, wound up supporting the big award.
“We just had to go with our common sense,” the foreman said.
The lawsuit was filed in May 1993. Prior to trial, Sacred Heart was dropped as a co-defendant in the case.