Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center was ordered Wednesday to pay $4 million to the family of a 42-year-old man who died from a surgical complication.
After 2 ½ days of deliberation, a jury decided that the San Luis Obispo hospital attempted to cover up Tyrone Taylor's cause of death on Jan. 27, 2010. The jury did not find that the hospital committed malpractice, however, and it did not award punitive damages, which the plaintiffs had sought.
"We thought the malpractice was clear as well," said Tyrone Maho, one of the attorneys representing the family. But, he said, the verdict did offer the family some vindication.
After the verdict, Sierra Vista limited its reaction to a statement emailed to The Tribune.
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“While the patient's outcome is not what anyone desired, we are pleased the jury understood and acknowledged that this was a sudden and unpreventable death,” the statement read. “However, we are disappointed the jury did not acknowledge that the hospital provided the family with a complete copy of Mr. Taylor’s medical records and arranged for an autopsy to seek answers to the questions the family had about this tragic and unexpected death. We will evaluate our legal options accordingly.”
Taylor, of Arroyo Grande, was treated for a problematic disk in his cervical spine. After surgery, he reported difficulty breathing and swallowing and had a change in his voice — hallmark signs of a hematoma, the plaintiffs said.
“He was expressing all of these,” Maho said after the verdict. “Our argument was that the hospital should have seen that.”
Initially, plaintiffs said, his surgeon, Donald Ramberg, who was also named in the suit, ordered the staff to treat him for a sore throat. Yet, according to the suit, Taylor had a post-operative hematoma — a blood pocket in the throat — that could have been easily treated.
Instead, he died in an emergency room.
Jay Hieatt, an attorney for the hospital, could not be reached Wednesday. In court documents, the defendants argued that the staff took proper action, eventually performing emergency surgery on Taylor.
When Ramberg initially informed Taylor’s wife, Sara Taylor, that her husband had died, he merely said Tyrone Taylor’s heart stopped, Maho said. Meanwhile, Maho added, the hospital’s risk manager sought an autopsy, even though the treating doctors were qualified to state the cause of death.
The hospital later hired a pathologist, who concluded that Taylor died of a fatty liver. Sara Taylor was given that explanation seven days after her husband died.
“They compounded it by trying to hide it,” Maho said. “We got a second autopsy to say that wasn’t the cause of death.”
The jury voted 10-2 that the hospital had conspired to commit fraud and awarded damages for the emotional distress it caused Tyrone Taylor’s widow and son. It voted 8-4 for malpractice, Maho said, but a 9-3 vote was needed.
To get punitive damages, the plaintiffs needed to show the hospital intended to harm Sara Taylor.