IHC To Pay $9.7M in Malpractice Case
Thursday, February 3, 2000
Shawna Williams comforts her daughter Deserae, 8, during a news conference Wednesday. A jury awarded Deserae's parents $9.7 million in damages after Intermountain Health Care (IHC) employees misread prenatal tests, resulting in her being born with serious permanent medical problems. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune)

   A Salt Lake County jury handed a record $9.7 million award to the family of an 8-year-old girl born with crippling cerebral palsy, ruling that Intermountain Health Care provided negligent prenatal care that caused the girl's lifelong medical problems.
    IHC, the nation's seventh-largest nonprofit hospital chain and the largest in Utah, could also face sanctions for failing to produce an ultrasound videotape, a key piece of evidence, until the waning days of the three-year litigation.
    Lawyers for Deserae Williams, a quadriplegic who will never eat except through a stomach tube or speak, say they requested the videotape as early as 1997. When the video finally was produced, the last 10 seconds were missing, said attorneys James W. McConkie and Bradley Parker.
    The attorneys argued that nurses at IHC's Cottonwood Hospital in Murray misread the mother's amniotic fluid tests in the days before Deserae's 1991 birth. The low levels of the fluid allowed the fetus to rest on the umbilical cord and cut off oxygen to the baby's brain, the lawyers said.
    "This has been one of the strangest cases I've ever been involved in," McConkie said Wednesday. "The tactics IHC used in this case were remarkable: They produced evidence at the last minute, they tried to blame doctors midway through, then when we get the tape the most important part is mysteriously gone."
    But Brinton R. Burbidge, who represented the mammoth health care provider, said McConkie and Parker never formally requested the videotape and were noteven aware of it until it was discovered by IHC just days before the trial.
    "As soon as I received information of the existence of the video tape, I informed the plaintiffs' counsel," Burbidge said. "His experts saw it as soon as my experts saw it."
    In a motion to impose sanctions, the girls' attorneys also claim the hospital produced only a handful of the estimated 50 still images taken during the ultrasound tests. Burbidge contends the actual number of photos has never been established.
    Third District Judge Sandra Peuler, who heard the case, said Tuesday she will schedule a hearing to determine if sanctions are warranted.
    The jury reached a verdict late Monday evening after 3 1/2 hours of deliberation and 10 days of testimony. Burbidge said IHC has not decided if it will appeal.
    The largest previous medical malpractice verdict in Utah is believed to be an $8.1 million award against FHP in 1993. That case also involved a child who received debilitating brain damage during delivery.
    The girl's parents expressed relief.
    "It's been a hard process and it's been a long process," said Shawna Williams, who has two other children. "If anything happens to us now, we know she'll be taken care of."
    Teachers say Deserae Williams is a little girl who loves to play trapped in a body that won't. She thinks and feels, but will never produce words. The teachers stopped having the class sing "If you're happy and you know it," and "I like being me," because while the rest of the children clapped hands, Deserae, a second-grader, quietly teared up.
    "She's very much aware," said Shawna Williams.
    Deserae's father, Gar Williams, rigged a makeshift elevator in their Murray home to give Deserae and her wheelchair access to the backyard, and built a contraption to allow her to play in the sandbox.
    "Now they'll be able to afford a safe elevator," McConkie said.
    In the lawsuit, which was filed in 1997, the Williams' contended that Cottonwood Hospital cut off their perinatal services sometime before Shawna Williams' pregnancy. But her primary doctor, James Bryner, was unaware the services had been terminated, the Williams family contended.
    Perinatologists are obstetricians with additional training in high-risk pregnancies.
    Dr. William Hamilton, the hospital's medical director, said there are now two perinatologists on staff. He was not at the hospital at the time of the 1991 birth.
    Hamilton sent sympathies to the Williams family Tuesday but maintains the hospital did nothing wrong.
    "We're disappointed with the jury verdict," he said. "The hospital believes that the amniotic fluid tests were accurately read and that the test results were appropriately reported to the attending physicians."
    The jury awarded $4,711,100 for past and future medical and other expenses to raise the child and $5 million in general damages for her pain and suffering.
    The jury ruled that IHC must pay 70 percent of the verdict and Dr. Bryner the remaining 30 percent. The family, however, settled with Bryner for an undisclosed amount prior to trial.
    "The Williams will not extract one penny of this verdict from Dr. Bryner," McConkie said, because they believe the doctor was not at fault.

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