Mobile, Ala. - On September 28, 2012, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a $4 million wrongful death judgment in the case of Hall v. Coastal Anesthesia, P.C.
Paulett Hall, a 32-year-old wife and mother of two children, died on January 16, 2006, after exploratory surgery at Springhill Memorial Hospital in Mobile. She presented to the anesthesia care team before surgery with ten risk factors for pulmonary aspiration. The trial evidence revealed that these risk factors were ignored by Coastal Anesthesia's doctor and certified registered nurse anesthetist, because neither completed a thorough pre-anesthesia assessment. Despite Ms. Hall's continuing abdominal problems and gastrointestinal issues, neither the anesthesiologist nor the nurse anesthetist conducted an abdominal physical assessment, asked her about her medical history, or took the time to evaluate her medical records. As a consequence, a routine intubation procedure was used instead of the required rapid sequence induction. Mrs. Hall aspirated bile into her lungs during the anesthesia induction, and she died a few hours later.
The case was tried in Mobile County Circuit Court (Case No. 07-901577) before Judge Robert Smith. The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $20 million in favor of the family of Mrs. Hall and against the Defendants. Judge Smith reduced the verdict to $4 million during post-trial motions. The Alabama Supreme Court, on Friday, affirmed Judge Smith's ruling, including the amount of the judgment, by a vote of 8 to 1.
The Alabama Supreme Court agreed with Judge Smith's rulings and his analysis of the post-trial issues. Of particular interest, the Defendants had argued that there was only $1,000,000 in available liability insurance and that the verdict should be reduced accordingly. However, the trial judge concluded that the Defendants' insurance company, MAG Mutual, was afforded the opportunity to settle the Plaintiffs' claims for an amount within the insurance policy limits before the trial, but rejected those overtures on multiple occasions; choosing instead to unreasonably risk the Defendants assets on the jury's verdict even though the verdict was predictably well in excess of the available coverage. The Alabama Supreme Court held that Judge Smith acted properly in reducing the verdict to $4,000,000, and that he was proper in considering the doctor and nurse's potential lawsuit against their own insurance company for refusing to settle before the trial. "It is unfortunate that the Defendants' insurance company forced all of the parties through a difficult and expensive trial. The evidence was clear that there was a breach of the standard of care, which led to Mrs. Hall's death. The Defendants and their experts admitted to breaches of the standard of care, and there was no reason for the insurance company to refuse to settle this case in a timely manner. As a result of the insurance company's decision, its doctors and nurse anesthetists now have a judgment against them which is four times greater than the available coverage and four times greater than that amount we offered to settle this case for before trial. All of this, from the treatment of Ms. Hall to the way the settlement negotiations were handled could so easily have been avoided. We are gratified that the Alabama Supreme Court agreed that Judge Smith handled this case properly," stated David Cain, counsel to the Plaintiff and a partner with Cunningham Bounds, LLC.
According to State law, all human life is priceless and thus not compensable. Accordingly, wrongful death damages in Alabama are entirely punitive. Damages in a wrongful death case should be of such an amount to reflect the enormity of the wrong committed while likewise protecting and preserving the public at large, by deterring similar wrongs in the future. In the opinion, authored by Justice Shaw, the Alabama Supreme Court held that Alabama's wrongful death statute is constitutional. The Court reaffirmed that Alabama's wrongful death statute awards only punitive damages based on "the Divine concept that all human life is precious."