Jury awards Alabama couple $6.7 million in malpractice suit

A 10-year legal battle over the crippling ailments a Salem, Ala., man suffered after a surgeon punctured his intestine during a hernia operation resulted in a Muscogee County Superior Court jury awarding the man and his wife $6.7 million Wednesday.

Thomas and Linda Jackson initially filed their claims against Dr. Kenneth Goldman and Surgical Associates of Columbus on Dec. 30, 2003, alleging that during a four-hour operation on Jan. 17, 2002, Goldman perforated Jackson’s small intestine and failed to repair the damage, leaving Jackson to endure a abdominal infection that left him bedridden in The Medical Center’s intensive care unit for almost six months.

The plaintiffs also sued The Medical Center and Dr. Vincent Nicholais, who headed the hospital’s intensive care unit. The hospital settled with the Jacksons, and the jury found Nicholais was not at fault.

Columbus attorney Ben Land, who represented the Jacksons, said Goldman noted during the surgery that he had penetrated the outer layer of Thomas Jackson’s intestine, but he did not think the perforation deep enough to cause a leak. Though the patient’s condition worsened immediately after the operation, Goldman did not discover the problem until another doctor suggested Jan. 21, 2002, that he determine whether Jackson had an intestinal infection.

Then Goldman performed a needle aspiration to draw fluid from Jackson’s abdomen, which revealed his small intestine was leaking. The injury was corrected that day, but by then the infection had spread, Land said.

He said his clients contended the issue should have been apparent the day after the operation: The surgery was 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. that Jan. 17, and Jackson that night began experiencing excruciating abdominal pain that medications could not relieve. By 8 a.m. the next day, he had a fever and elevated pulse, and his urinary output and white blood cell count had dropped, Land said.

Jackson developed a massive infection, the attorney said: On Jan. 19, 2002, his organs began to fail, and he needed a ventilator to breathe. Finally the Jan. 21 needle aspiration revealed the problem after visiting physician Dr. David Norman of the Morehouse University School of Medicine suggested the origin of Jackson’s infection.

After a second surgery, Jackson went back to ICU in critical condition, his abdomen under so much pressure from the infection that doctors had to cut and leave it open for days to relieve the strain, Land said.

Three more surgeries followed, the attorney said, and Jackson lay bedridden so long that he sustained deep bed sores that penetrated the muscle of his back, and he had contractions in his legs that left them permanently bent. He had 2½ years of physical therapy, and today relies partially on a wheelchair, having limited use of his legs.

Jackson was 57 years old when he had the 2002 surgery, which was his third hernia operation and complicated by scars from earlier surgeries, Land said. For 32 years he’d been a millworker, and he loved it, having dropped out of school at age 15 to get the job, the attorney said. Though he had a hernia, he worked 12 hours the day before his operation.

The crippling effects of his long hospital stay ended his career, and compelled his wife to give up her job to become his caretaker. His son moved his own family here from Texas to help care for his parents, Land said.

Jackson’s lingering ailments also substantially reduced his mobility at home in Salem, where he has 12 acres on which he used to garden, build metal structures and weld, the attorney said. Now 69, he uses a powered wheelchair and a four-wheeler to get around on his property.

The jury’s award of $6.7 million was divided between husband and wife, with Thomas Jackson awarded $5.2 million and his wife $1.5 million.

Goldman was represented by Robert "Cal" Martin Jr. of the Columbus law firm Hatcher-Stubbs. Martin was not available for comment.