By Joe Lambe
Kansas City Star
A Jackson County Circuit Court jury awarded about $20 million Thursday to an 11-year-old Kansas City girl who came out of minor skin surgery blinded and permanently brain-damaged.
But Nicole Adams can get only about $3 million of the money.
The rest cannot be collected because of a 1987 Missouri law that limits medical malpractice awards and because some doctors found at fault by the jury already had settled with Nicole’s mother.
Attorneys for the child said they will use the $20 million verdict in a legal challenge aimed at overturning the 1987 law in the Missouri Supreme Court.
“Lawyers have been waiting for the right case,” said Anita Porte Robb, one of Nicole’s attorneys. “This is it. We expect to collect every penny. ”
Defense attorneys said that the case demonstrates why the law is needed to control health costs and that it will be upheld.
The law sets a $430,000 limit per defendant on pain and suffering damages.
Nicole already had received $6 million in settlements, and the additional $20 million would have been excessive and based on juror emotion, said Timothy M. Aylward, attorney for Children’s Mercy Hospital and two nurses.
“You can’t just keep handing out that kind of money,” he said.
“Sooner or later every person pays for these huge verdicts.”
Nicole’s mother, Julia Adams, took Nicole, then 8, to the hospital on March 25, 1988, after the child upended a skillet and spilled hot grease on her back.
During minor skin graft surgery on March 30, Nicole’s heart stopped for about 19 minutes after doctors at Children’s Mercy used intravenous tubes to inject 20 pounds of saline solution into the 55-pound child. The fluid filled her lungs and stopped her heart.
Nicole was revived but is blind, cannot use her limbs properly, has seizures, and will always have the mental level of a young child, doctors said.
Jurors held Children’s Mercy 20 percent responsible for Nicole’s injuries and found Dr. Jane Jelinek-Boozalis, then resident anesthesiologist, 18 percent to blame.
Dr. Peter Mestad, Jelinek-Boozalis’ supervisor, was found 50 percent to blame. Another supervisor, Dr. Robert Binda, was found 10 percent to blame, and the surgeon who performed the skin graft, Dr. Ronald Sharp, had 2 percent of the responsibility.
But the doctors had been part of two previous settlements, and Binda and Mestad do not have to pay anything. Sharp may have to pay as a separate agent for the hospital, but that is a matter of legal dispute. With the state limit, that leaves about $3 million for Nicole and about $100,000 for her mother, in addition to the earlier $6 million settlements.
Jurors found nurses Suzanna Roushar and Cynthia Dooley not liable in the case.
Closing statements by attorneys in the case Wednesday brought tears to at least one juror’s eyes.
Gary Robb, another attorney for Nicole and her mother, asked jurors for $60 million and said of Nicole, “She’ll never marry, she can’t raise a family, she’ll never work. No young man is ever going to invite Nicole to the prom. Her mother is her only friend.” “A little person, when a big wrong has been committed, deserves worthier justice,” he said.
Janet Simpson, attorney for Jelinek-Boozalis, countered in closing, “When Mr. Robb talks about big justice, he talks about big dollars.”
But under longstanding law, Simpson could not tell jurors that other defendants already had settled for $6 million. She also could not and did not tell them that Children’s Mercy and Jelinek-Boozalis had offered more than $3 million to settle.
Jurors said after the trial that they wanted to make sure Nicole was taken care of.