A jury has returned a $10 million verdict against a defendant nephrologist in a medical malpractice case stemming from the death of a 63-year-old patient due to untreated acute kidney failure.
The jury returned defense verdicts against two additional defendants: the daytime and nighttime hospitalists.
The verdict was handed down last month by a jury in Petersburg Circuit Court. Judge Dennis M. Martin presided over the seven day trial. The name of the case is Estate of Rita Epps v. Sajid Naveed, et al.
Facts of the case
According to information provided by Richmond attorney Brewster Rawls, who represented the plaintiffs, the timeline of the case dates back to December 2016, when Rita Epps was admitted to Southside Regional Medical Center.
Epps’ initial evaluation indicated that she was in acute kidney failure. She was admitted to the hospital and evaluated by a hospitalist. A nephrology consultation was then ordered with the nephrologist on call, Dr. Sajid Naveed.
According to information provided by Rawls and defense counsel Jodi Simopoulos, who represented the hospitalists, Naveed “had not seen the patient by the end of the day.” As Epps’ condition changed, the overnight hospitalist transferred her to the intensive care unit of the hospital.
When Epps’ condition worsened, an ICU nurse called Naveed, who ordered more sodium bicarbonate. Prior to that, the nighttime hospitalist had instituted numerous treatments, including sodium bicarbonate and sepsis protocols. Naveed evaluated the patient the following morning in person and again ordered more sodium bicarbonate before ordering continuous renal replacement therapy, a form of dialysis.
Upon returning from having her dialysis catheter placed, Epps coded, suffering cardiac arrest and permanent brain damage. Her life support was removed several days later.
The administrators of Epps’ estate, Shandra Claiborne-Payton and Herman Epps, sued the overnight hospitalist, the daytime hospitalist and Naveed. The suit alleged the providers failed to institute dialysis in time to prevent Epps’ death.
Rawls said the trial was unique in that the facts of the case were not in dispute. Rather, at issue was which defendant was responsible for the decisions that were made.
“It is rare that you have defendants that are overtly fighting with each other,” Rawls said. “In my 30 some odd years, I’ve only seen it once before.”
According to a trial report submitted to Virginia Lawyers Weekly by Simopoulos, Naveed contended at trial that he had not received calls from either of the hospitalists. Simopoulos wrote that evidence was provided at trial of Naveed’s telephone records and nursing communication notes, which supported the hospitalists’ claims that they reached out to Naveed.
“The hospitalists took the view, which the jury ultimately agreed with, that it was on the nephrologist who had been consulted,” Rawls said.
He continued, “There really wasn’t a whole lot of dispute about what needed to be done for this patient medically. But it was a huge dispute as to who was holding the bag, if you will.”
Additionally, Rawls said the plaintiffs joined the two hospitalists in a pretrial motion to exclude the testimony of the nephrologist’s experts, who were set to testify that the hospitalists breached the standard of care. Martin ruled to exclude their testimony at a pretrial hearing.
“We joined in the motion of the hospitalists to exclude that evidence, which was, again, a bit of an unusual situation to have a plaintiff joining with two of the three defendants challenging the potential evidence of another defendant,” Rawls said.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury deliberated for about three hours before returning a $10 million verdict against Naveed, the nephrologist. The jury returned defense verdicts in favor of the two hospitalists. The verdict apportioned 55% of the award to Herman Epps, Epps’ widower, and 15% to each of her three children.
Rawls said no evidence of economic losses or medical bills was presented, but the jury was told in closing that the family had sued for $10 million.
Per Virginia’s medical malpractice cap law, Va. Code § 8.01-581.15, Martin reduced the verdict. Given when the events of this case occurred, medical malpractice damages were capped at $2.25 million. Under current law, the cap on damages will go up by $50,000 every year until 2031, when it reaches $3 million.
Rawls said that this case “is an example, once again, of just how unfair the cap on damages is for litigants in Virginia.”
“The fact that you have a medical malpractice claim should not restrict your ability to recover, and I think this was just another reminder of that,” he said.
Rawls added that, although he would have preferred a verdict against all three defendants, he was reassured by the verdict that juries “try really, really hard to do the right thing.”
“I think the fact that they made the decision that they did tells you that they were thinking about the case very rationally and very deliberately; that it wasn’t just a knee-jerk, runaway plaintiff verdict,” Rawls said.
Richmond attorneys Eric Speer and Jay Tronfeld joined Rawls as plaintiffs’ counsel.
Simopoulos and Byron Mitchell served as counsel in the successful defense of the hospitalists. Simopoulos and Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment.
Dr. Michael M. Wilson is an attorney and a physician who earned his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his legal and medical degrees from Georgetown University. He has focused in the area of medical malpractice for more than three decades and secured more than $100 million in settlements and verdicts on behalf of clients throughout the country. He is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and New York as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court. He is listed in America’s Top 100 High Stakes Litigators.