In wake of $26 million malpractice verdict, St. Francis agrees to pay and drop appeals

An hour after a Muscogee County State Court jury returned a $26 million medical malpractice verdict against St. Francis Hospital and one of its employee physicians, attorneys for the hospital agreed to pay $25 million within 30 days and drop all appeals.

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, Roger S. Sumrall told Judge Ben Richardson that his client would pay the amount to Sandra Williams, who suffered serious injuries in 2012.

Claiming the hospital and its doctor, Erik Westerlund, had acted in bad faith in the treatment of Williams, her attorney, Lloyd N. Bell of Atlanta, was prepared to ask the jury for an additional $10 million in legal fees.

The jury, which was required by Georgia law to determine each defendant’s percentage of responsibility, sent a powerful message to the hospital and Westerlund, Bell said.

“They sent the message that the hospital needs to do a better job,” Bell said. “This never should have happened and was completely preventable. ... Dr. Westerlund was determined to be 100 percent responsible and I think the jury got it right.”

Sandra Williams had neck surgery at St. Francis Hospital in October 2012. The surgery was performed by Dr. Thomas R. Walsh. Three days later, she went to the St. Francis Emergency Room complaining of an inability to swallow, as well as intense pain in her neck.

Westerlund admitted her to the hospital from the emergency room at 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 20. He did not see her until about noon, according to testimony, which was a violation of a hospital policy requiring the admitting physician to see the patient within two hours.

Williams suffered brain damage that led to blindness and a loss of coordination and balance that resulted in confinement to a wheelchair. She sat through the entire trial next to her attorney, Bell. She was also represented by Dr. Lawrence B. Schlachter, an attorney and medical doctor from Roswell.

Williams, now 58, was 55 at the time of the procedure.

“She was very active, having run a 5k race just four days before the surgery,” Bell said. “She also sang in the church choir and had a beautiful singing voice, which she lost.”

Bell played video of Williams singing prior to the October 2012 and afterward.

“The jury saw it,” Bell said of the impact.

After Richardson dismissed the jury, which had deliberated about five hours over two days, several members lined up in front of Williams to speak to her before the courtroom was cleared.

Williams, who worked in the Columbus city attorney’s office for 25 years, called it a “blessed release” to have the legal process over.

“Now, I can carry on with my life, try to get stronger and better,” she said in a voice that was a whisper.

Williams and her husband, Phillip, who died of cancer in 2015, filed suit against St. Francis and multiple doctors, nurses and physician assistants in 2014. A number of the defendants were dismissed from the case by Richardson and Judge Andy Prather, who originally had the suit.

By the time the case reached trial two weeks ago, the only defendants left were the hospital and Dr. Christopher Tidwell, a Columbus pulmonologist who had performed an emergency medical procedure on Williams after she was admitted by Westerlund.

By assessing all of the blame to Westerlund, the jury ruled in favor of Tidwell, finding he had no fault in Williams’ injuries.

Tidwell was represented by Paul E. Weathington and Tracy Baker of Atlanta and Greg Ellington of Columbus. St. Francis was represented by Roger Sumrall of Atlanta.

“We are pleased that the jury found in favor of Dr. Tidwell,” Tidwell’s defense team said in a statement. “He was in the hospital on a Saturday rounding on other patients and did not know anything about Mrs. Williams at the time he got a call from the nurses in the ICU to come help because Mrs. Williams had developed difficulty breathing.”

Tidwell found that Williams’ airway was severely obstructed, according to testimony.

“The jury apparently agreed that Dr. Tidwell did all a physician in his position could do under the circumstances to try to help,” the statement read. “Sandy Williams is an inspiration and we wish her and her family all the best.”

Tidwell was placed in a difficult circumstance, Weathington said.

“... To get zero responsibility for a defendant when the jury clearly wants to hold someone responsible is very rare,” he said.

Bell, representing Williams, put it another way in his opening statement.

“I told the jury that Dr. Tidwell was given a box of snakes by Dr. Westerlund when he showed up,” Bell said.

Westerlund was the only defendant who settled individually prior to the trial. The terms of that settlement are confidential and have not been disclosed. But Bell put it on the record with the court that St. Francis has agreed to pay $25 million, which was less the $1 million already paid by Westerlund’s insurance carrier.

Westerlund was one of about two dozen witnesses who testified.

“I asked Dr. Westerlund if he could go back to Oct. 20, 2012 and do anything different,” Bell said. “He basically said he wouldn’t do anything differently.”

There was another rarity in the case, said Weathington, who has done medical malpractice defense work for 35 years. Asked about the hospital’s decision to end all appeals and pay the verdict, he was quick to answer.

“That never happens in an hour,” he said.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams