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October 3, 2012

Fox Hospital hit with $126M verdict

Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — In what is believed to be the largest civil judgment in local court history, a state Supreme Court jury has directed A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital to pay a 51-year-old Oneonta woman $126 million to cover her past pain and future medical needs for failure to diagnose and treat her heart attack.

The former Fox patient, Debora Sohl, lost at least 70 percent of her heart’s pumping capacity as a result of doctors initially failing to recognize that she was experiencing a heart attack when she went to the hospital emergency room Jan. 26, 2009, said her attorney, James Linnan of Albany. Within about six years, Linnan said, Sohl will need a heart transplant.

Reacting to the verdict, Fox Memorial President John R. Remillard said the hospital will be filing an appeal.

“A.O. Fox Hospital has been a cornerstone of the Oneonta Community for more than 100 years and we take our mission of providing excellent healthcare to our family, friends and neighbors extremely seriously,” Remillard said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Our goal is to handle each of the 100,000 patient visits we receive every year with the utmost care. The verdict in this case was unexpected, and we will be filing an appeal. A.O. Fox’s 900 employees will continue to provide excellent healthcare to the area’s youngest patients, oldest patients and everyone in between.”

There was no immediate comment on the verdict from the Bassett Healthcare Network, with which Fox Memorial is now affiliated. At the time of the incident, Fox was independent of Bassett, noted Bassett spokeswoman Karen Huxtable-Hooker.

Linnan said Sohl’s ordeal at Fox began when she arrived at the hospital that morning at 9:36 a.m. with a “crushing chest pain.” Linnan said. It was not until about 2 p.m. that she was examined by an emergency room doctor and given an electrocardiogram test, he said.

Though there were clear symptoms that she was having cardiac problems, he said, Sohl was given anti-anxiety medication and admitted over night without being treated for the heart condition.

“There was testimony in the case that she was the victim of age and gender bias,” Linnan told The Daily Star. To the Fox emergency room staffers, he said, “she was just some anxious female — and God knows females don’t have heart attacks.”

Linnan said Sohl’s condition worsened because of the delay in properly diagnosing her condition. “The more time, the more tissue damage,” he said.

The morning after she was admitted, Sohl’s now-former husband, Vincent Herrmann, who had experienced his own heart attack, convinced his cardiac specialist, Dr. Anthony Cammilleri, to examine his wife, Linnan said.

Linnan said Cammilleri went to Fox, “took one look at the patient” and determined she needed to be rushed by ambulance to UHS Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City, he said. That hospital, he added, was equipped with a cardiac catheter laboratory, which Fox lacked.

In the civil trial, Cammilleri, who is an attending physician at Fox, became a subpoenaed witness who testified on behalf of Sohl, he noted.

“He saved the woman’s life and then he went into court and testified against his own hospital,” Linnan said. “He wouldn’t take a dime for his testimony.”

The trial testimony focused on the actions of three Fox doctors, all of whom were initially named as defendants, Linnan said. The lawyer said that, before heading to trial, he revised the case to make Fox the sole defendant.

Linnan said the evidence faulted: Dr. James L. Rice, the emergency room physician who first examined Sohl; Dr. Blaine R. Jones, a doctor who examined Sohl after she was admitted and assigned a room that afternoon; and Dr. Maciej Nowakowski; who observed Sohl late that night and the following morning before her transfer to Wilson.

All three of the doctors remain on the Fox staff, Linnan said.

As a result of having a diminished heart capacity, Linnan said that Sohl’s “whole body is starved for nutrition and oxygen constantly.”

“The quality of her life is almost zero,” he said.

Prior to the hospitalization, he said, Sohl had worked as a horse trainer. “She was throwing bales of hay around,” he noted.

Over the next couple of years, Sohl is going to need to utilize a defibrillator, after which she will have to be equipped with a type of mechanical heart known as a ventricular assist device, Linnan said.

Ultimately, he said, she will require a heart transplant, which is expected to cost several million dollars.

Linnan said if the Fox emergency room doctor had consulted with a cardiologist immediately, his client’s condition would not have rapidly deteriorated as it did.

Linnan said Fox is insurance by Medical Liability Mutual Co., but the jury verdict amount exceeds the amount for which it is covered. He said he had no information on the extent of the hospital’s insurance coverage.

The hospital was represented in the trial by Binghamton lawyer David McCarthy. “I’m afraid I cannot comment about ongoing litigation,” McCarthy said when reached by The Daily Star.

Presiding over the trial was state Supreme Court Judge Michael Coccoma. Assisting Linnan in representing Sohl was his law partner, Charlene Fallon. Linnan said it was the largest jury verdict he has experienced in his 38 years of litigation.