Today, we conclude the story of Sandra Williams v. St. Francis Hospital, one of the most significant medical malpractice cases Bell Law Firm has ever been involved in.
A Ticking Time-Bomb
We called Dr. Thomas Walsh as the first witness, the surgeon who performed Sandy William’s neck surgery.
Dr. Walsh had been hired as an expert witness in a previous, near-identical case to Sandy’s. The plaintiff for that Alabama-based case was a gentleman who died, suffocated by his hematoma. Dr. Walsh testified on behalf of the plaintiff in that case and said something very different than what he said in our case, because he didn’t realize we knew about his past case involvement.
We clarified and confirmed with him, and he held tight to his opinion that there was nothing to do in Sandy’s case but watch until she had breathing problems.
At that point, we brought up the case Dr. Walsh had previously testified in. We pulled up his deposition from that case on screen so the jury could see. In that case, the plaintiff – just like Sandy Williams – came in post-surgery with swelling and an inability to swallow. In Alabama, Dr. Walsh testified that in that situation, the standard of care required the patient to be taken back for surgery immediately, without delay, calling the hematoma a ticking time-bomb.
We contacted the surviving family members in Alabama well before trial and asked them to sign a medical release so we could have access to his medical records, including x-rays. We compared the other plaintiff’s x-ray to Sandy’s, putting them up on a board to demonstrate the size. In Alabama, Dr. Walsh stated the plaintiff’s hematoma was the biggest he had seen in his career, so comparing the two x-rays side by side showed the jury exactly how comparable they were.
The jury saw plainly that Sandy’s case was similar to the Alabama case in that it was also a ticking time-bomb.
Bell Law Firm’s Due Diligence
Because of Bell Law Firm’s due diligence in requesting medical records, trial transcripts and past case documentation, we were able to show that the defendants were dishonest. Dr. Walsh was trying to protect his hospital and partner and was not living up to his oath to tell the truth. We won the case because Dr. Walsh wasn’t a credible witness. It was a major turning point in the case, and we had two weeks ahead of us in trial.
Juries are generally reluctant to return a verdict against a healthcare provider, because it’s no small thing for a juror to say they find a doctor, nurse or doctor has committed medical malpractice. Lawyers must make the case accessible to juries, helping them understand the medicine and malpractice. The jury in this case placed 100% of the fault at the feet of Dr. Westerlund, which Bell Law believed was a just outcome.
In this case, we won on liability, but had a long path ahead of us. We had to call expert witnesses on the different issues, we called Sandy to testify, and unfortunately, by the time we got to trial, her husband had died from cancer.
Transitioning to Damages
The part of a case where you present damages to the jury is crucial. In Georgia, there are different types of damages you can recover, including medical bills, future medical bills, healthcare plans and more. The biggest element is the non-economic damages, sometimes known as pain and suffering. Things like humiliation, embarrassment, stress, worry, fear of the future – all those components need to be considered by the jury when awarding damages. Further, it’s important as plaintiff’s attorneys to prove those damages.
To do so, we had to show the jury the specific changes in Sandy’s life. In her case, one of the most unfortunate outcomes of her surgery and hematoma was its impact on her voice.
Through discovery, we learned Sandy was very active in her church as a congregant and choir member. To demonstrate to the jury, we played a video of Sandy singing in her choir before her injury. It was beautiful and strong. After, we played a video of Sandy post-injury, singing with a voice that could barely be heard. Her singing voice was essentially gone.
The jury could see what a loss it was for Sandy to go from where she was before her injury, to where she was after. It was powerful to have a video where a jury could see, hear and appreciate how much singing meant to Sandy and what a tremendous loss she sustained. .
During closing arguments, I remember standing in front of the jury, talking about the damages and losses Sandy experienced, specifically about her loss of vision. She’ll never be able to watch another sunset or sunrise, or more importantly, look into the eyes of her granddaughter who was born after her injury.
As I was speaking about her losses and how to value them, I looked at Sandy and could see the tears streaming down her cheek. Without thinking, I walked over to her and got down on a knee and put my arm around her.
I got back up, finished up my closing argument, and didn’t make any comment about that moment. That connection with a client can’t be manufactured – it must be real and authentic. I believe the reason I felt capable of having that moment with Sandy in a closing argument was because we felt so connected throughout the entire case.
As the jury deliberated that Friday, the defense proposed a high-low settlement between $5-$12M. That was obviously a significant amount of money, but it didn’t feel like enough. It didn’t feel true to the significance of the case.
When we showed back up after the weekend, the defense was more interested in a high-low settlement from $7M-$15M. That meant that no matter what the jury did, Sandy was guaranteed $7M, however if the jury came back with a verdict over $15M, she could only recover $15M. That’s one of the highest high-low agreements I had ever seen in a medical malpractice case, but I still didn’t think it was enough for Sandy.
Sandy ultimately declined the offer, stating she’d be at peace with whatever the jury would decide. Shortly after, we learned the jury had a verdict.
The jury foreperson stood up and announced they sided with Sandy Williams and found the damages amount to $26M. The judge turned to the jury and thanked them for their service, and everyone let out a collective sigh of relief.
The look of relief on Sandy’s face, and joy that it was over, will stay with me forever.
Sandy continues to live in Columbus, but now has a new home adapted for her disabilities. She remains very active in her church and with her friends. Because of this verdict, she receives extensive physical therapy that she couldn’t receive before. She has a pool at her house with a trained aqua-therapist to help keep her muscle strength up. She’s receiving excellent care because she now has the resources to do it.
While a favorable outcome, Sandy’s story is a tragic one in a lot of ways. None of this should have happened in the first place, and I remind myself of that. Even though the outcome was to Sandy’s benefit, she would have given every penny of it away to avoid having to have her life turned upside down like this.
Final Lessons and Thoughts
This remains the largest medical malpractice verdict in Bell Law Firm’s history. It was also a great learning experience for our law firm, with two great lessons we carry to this day: the importance of due diligence, and the value of connection with your client.
Ultimately, Sandy’s case was not a story of one-off negligence or unpredictability. Rather, Sandy’s case reflected a number of system failures, specifically a lack of communication between her healthcare providers. So many cases like this result from system failures. We can and must do better for people like Sandy.