Health Care

St. Francis settles suit over whether doctors are to blame for newborn's brain damage

St. Francis settled a medical malpractice suit last week involving two of its employee physicians, Dr. Susan Epley and Dr. Daniel Eikelberry.
St. Francis settled a medical malpractice suit last week involving two of its employee physicians, Dr. Susan Epley and Dr. Daniel Eikelberry. Ledger-Enquirer file photo

Facing its second medical malpractice trial in less than three months, St. Francis Hospital settled late last week with a Columbus family that contended the care of two of the hospital-employed physicians led to brain damage and developmental delays suffered by their daughter at birth.

Heather and Benjamin Carpenter along with their daughter, Gracie, sued St. Francis Hospital, Dr. Susan L. Epley, Dr. Daniel J. Eikelberry and the Medical Center, Inc. for issues involving Gracie’s birth in 2011. Terms of the settlement, which was reached late Thursday, were not disclosed. The case against St. Francis was scheduled for trial Monday in Muscogee County Superior Court.

Columbus Regional, which owned the Medical Center at the time, settled last May, as did Epley and Eikelberry for their individual liability. Terms of those settlements were not disclosed and also remain confidential.

Atlanta attorney Lyle Griffin Warshauer of the Warshauer Law Group, PC has represented the Carpenters for more than five years — the case was filed in August 2013 — and was prepared to take the case to trial this week.

“A looming trial is a great motivator for parties to see things more clearly, and more fully evaluate the risk,” she said. “Quite frankly, this is one that should have resolved a long time ago, but because our trial date kept being postponed, the pressure was not on until now. My clients have remained quite steadfast in their position, to the frustration of the opposing side. They were willing to wait until St. Francis did what was right, even if that meant a two-week trial followed by a lengthy appeal.”

St. Francis was acquired by Brentwood, Tenn.-based Lifepoint Health on Dec. 31, 2015.

“Since this matter predates the current administration, please direct any additional questions to our attorney,” said St. Francis Administrative Director, Marketing & Communications Katy Hedge.

The Atlanta attorney representing St. Francis, Roger S. Sumrall of Bendin Sumrall & Landin LLC, confirmed the settlement, but declined to discuss the specifics, citing confidential terms.

Sumrall represented St. Francis in a medical malpractice case in December in which a Muscogee County State Court jury returned a $26 million verdict against St. Francis Hospital and one of its employee physicians, Dr. Erik Westerlund.

With the threat of the case going back to the jury that had just delivered what is believed to be the largest verdict in the county’s history, Sumrall told Judge Ben Richardson that his client would pay $25 million to Sandra Williams, who suffered serious injuries in 2012 due to complications following neck surgery.

While the facts in the December case were different, the common thread was the hospital was being sued for the actions of its employee physicians.

According to a pretrial order that was filed in Superior Court last week, on July 28, 2011, Heather Carpenter was pregnant with her second child when she went to The Medical Center at 35 weeks of pregnancy experiencing preterm contractions. She was admitted by Epley, a St. Francis Hospital OBGYN, for monitoring for preterm labor. At the time, St. Francis did not offer labor and delivery services.

At that point in her pregnancy, Carpenter had not been tested for Group B Streptococcus. Dr. Epley ordered that Carpenter receive intravenous Ampicillin, an antibiotic, to protect the baby should Heather deliver, as well as Magnesium Sulfate, in an effort to stop the labor. Dr. Epley did not order a culture for Group B Streptococcus prior to ordering the antibiotics as required by the standard of care for OB/GYN physicians, according to the order.

Carpenter responded to medications given to stop her labor and was discharged from the hospital two days later after receiving several doses of intravenous antibiotics, which were intended to protect the baby from a potential infection. Because a Group B Streptococcus culture was not performed in accordance with the standard of care, Heather’s Group B Streptococcus status remained unknown at the time of her discharge, the pretrial order stated.

A few days later, Carpenter was examined by another St. Francis OBGYN, Daniel Eikelberry, in his office for a regularly scheduled prenatal appointment, according to the pretrial order. Eikelberry cultured Heather for Group B Streptococcus colonization at 35 weeks’ gestation. On August 10, 2011, the culture was reported as negative.

“When Dr. Eikelberry saw Heather in the office on August 1, 2011, he should have recognized that she had been in the hospital several days prior, where she received Ampicillin, an antibiotic known to effectively treat GBS,” the pretrial order states. “Knowing that Heather had recently received antibiotics, Dr. Eikelberry should have recognized that a culture performed on that date could not be relied upon to accurately reflect her GBS status. Dr. Eikelberry’s decision to obtain the culture after the administration of antibiotics, and to rely on the results to manage Heather’s future care, was a deviation from the standard of care.”

On the morning of August 18, 2011 and more than 37 weeks pregnant, Carpenter reported to The Medical Center in labor. Staff at the Hospital evaluated the labs from the St. Francis OBGYN practice, and determined that Carpenter did not need intrapartum antibiotic prophylaxis for GBS during labor because of the negative GBS culture in her chart. Heather delivered Gracie, a healthy-appearing baby girl around 8:32 p.m.

“At approximately 24 hours of age, Gracie had an axillary temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit,” the order stated. “Lab tests indicated that Gracie had an infection. Subsequent blood and spinal fluid studies confirmed that Gracie contracted Group B Streptococcus at birth resulting in meningitis. The infection in her brain, resulted in seizures, and Gracie has since been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment, and generalized developmental delay.”

The fault for Gracie Carpenter’s condition rested with the physicians, according to the pretrial order.

“Had Heather Carpenter been properly screened during pregnancy, her GBS-positive status would have been known prior to her labor, and she would have received antibiotics during labor and delivery,” the pretrial order contended. “Plaintiffs alleged that the combined failures of the St. Francis doctors resulted in Heather not receiving antibiotics, which then caused Gracie Carpenter to be exposed to GBS and suffer damages as a result.”

Benjamin Carpenter is a retired U.S. Army Ranger who works for a military contractor and Heather Carpenter is a registered nurse who is currently not working, but taking care of Gracie and the couple’s other children. This case was about Gracie and her long-term care, which will be required for the rest of her life, Warshauer said.

“They filed this lawsuit not for themselves, but for Gracie, and they have carefully evaluated what they feel is necessary to provide for their daughter’s future,” Warshauer said. “There is no question they were willing to go to trial if they didn’t get what was fair, and I can assure you we would not have agreed to the settlement if we did not think that it would sufficiently provide for Gracie’s needs. This was actually the second settlement in this case, as we resolved our claims against other defendants last year. So they already have a trust in place, and were not going to be without any recovery, regardless of the outcome in this trial.”

The case had gone to mediation multiple times, the latest on Feb. 26, a week before the scheduled trial in front of Senior Judge Frank Jordan.

Sumrall had been working late last week to delay the trial. Once it appeared the case was likely to be tried, Sumrall, representing St. Francis, filed a motion with the court to deny a request from the Ledger-Enquirer to allow cameras in the courtroom. Sumrall cited the privacy of Gracie Carpenter as the reason for wanting to keep video and still cameras out of the proceedings.

Warshauer led a legal team that included Michael J. Warshauer, Michael E. Perez and April Swanson of the Warshauer Law Group and Columbus attorney Traci Courville of Oates and Courville.

Michael J. Warshauer, in an interview last week after a pretrial hearing in front of Jordan, said the Medical Center, though all of the treatment was at that facility, was not to blame for Gracie Carpenter’s condition. The fault rested with St. Francis and its employee physicians.

“The more I know about this case, the more I believe that the Medical Center was merely making a business decision that was unrelated to their wrongful conduct,” Michael J. Warshauer said. “I don’t think they really did anything wrong. At the end of the day ... the more convinced I am the care provided by the Medical Center was above and beyond the standard of care provided by average hospitals in the United States.”

Medical Center attorney, Paul Ivey of the Columbus office of Hall Booth Smith PC, said the terms of its settlement are confidential.

“We were confident in the care the nurses and staff provided but a decision was made to resolve the case for an amount satisfactory to both parties,” Ivey said in a email statement Monday.

This case had become personal, Lyle Warshauer said.

“This has been a long road for me, and certainly for the Carpenter family,” she said. “They have become like family to me and the others on my team. My kids have literally seen Gracie grow up, and my youngest can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t working on this case.”

And in the end, this was about taking care of the needs of Gracie, who is now 6 years old, said Lyle Warshauer.

“To know Gracie is to love her, and I am confident that the jury would have been able to appreciate how special she is,” Lyle Warshauer said.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams