On Oct. 1, the Tennessee medical malpractice reform act became law. The act caps damages such as "pain and suffering" to $750,000 and limits punitive damages to twice compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.
The new law applies only to incidents that occurred after the reform went into effect.
Source: Tennessee Code
The parents of a 16-month-old girl have filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Erlanger hospital, three local doctors and two doctors' groups for what they claim were negligent decisions that disabled their daughter for life.
Attorney Olen Haynes, of Johnson City, Tenn., filed the suit Wednesday in Hamilton County Circuit Court for Brandon and Melissa Haley, of Dalton, Ga., and their daughter Starla Haley.
The complaint alleges that on July 17, 2010, Dr. Valerie Parker chose to deliver Starla vaginally rather than by a planned Caesarian section and over protests from both parents.
The couple's doctor had ruled the pregnancy high-risk when Dr. Shawn Stallings found "fetal bowel loops" in Starla. The loops caused her belly to swell 25 percent larger than her head and doctors believed that a vaginal delivery could cause twisting in her intestines or a rupture, the lawsuit states.
It also claims that a one-day delay in surgery further complicated problems caused by the delivery.
The lawsuit does not list a dollar amount but asks for a jury trial to determine damages for Starla's "medical costs, considerable pain and suffering, physical and mental anguish."
The Haleys are suing Erlanger hospital, Regional Obstetrical Consultants, University Surgical Associates, Dr. Carlos Torres, Stallings and Dr. Lisa Ann Smith.
Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said Friday that "none of the individuals named in this suit are Erlanger physicians or staff."
Michael Ringering, spokesman for University Surgical Associates, which employs Smith, said Friday, "We do not comment on pending litigation."
Regional Obstetrical Consultants staff, which employ Stallings, Parker and Torres, did not return calls for comment.
Lawyers for the defendants have 30 days, unless granted an extension, to file an answer to the complaint.
Smith and University Surgical Associates also are named in an ongoing Circuit Court lawsuit by Thomas and Tanesa Craig. Their daughter Lydia Ann Craig, age 8, died Nov. 18, 2008, one month after Smith performed abdominal surgery on her.
The Haley family, clockwise from top left, Brandon Haley (father), Tyson Haley (10), Melissa Haley (mother), Starla Haley (1 1/2), Hunter Hill (4), and Sarah Hill (6) pose in the living room of their Dalton, Ga., residence early Friday afternoon.Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
When Parker told the Haleys that Starla would not be delivered by C-section, Brandon Haley, 37, couldn't believe what was happening.
His wife was in labor, he said in an interview, and he tried explaining to the doctor that this was a high-risk pregnancy and the surgery had been planned for a month. But Parker wouldn't listen, he said.
"We were stuck with no option," he said.
At least the planned surgery to fix loops in her intestine would happen quickly, he thought.
But the surgery, which Torres told the Haleys would be immediate, didn't happen for more than a day, Haley said.
When Starla went back for the operation, Haley said, the parents were assured that everything would be fine. But 45 minutes later doctors called the couple to the neonatal intensive care unit office.
"They told us we needed to sit down," Melissa Haley said. "I knew there was something wrong."
Smith told them Starla wasn't going to make it, the couple said. The surgery revealed an "intra-abdominal catastrophe" from the twisted abdominal loops. Blood flow cut off from the bowels had killed too much tissue, the Haleys said they were told.
"She told me that and my heart sank," Melissa said. "We had no idea what we could do. We had no help."
Brandon said the doctors told them they had two options -- take Starla home and feed her sugar water until she died or keep her in the hospital under medication until she died.
The Haleys started asking questions. Could they do a transplant? Were there facilities that specialized in Starla's problem? Hospital staff and their doctors gave them conflicting answers, they said.
The Haleys found that the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha performed intestinal transplants on infants and fought to have Starla transferred. After a lot of red tape, they said, their daughter arrived at the Nebraska facility on Aug. 18, 2010.
Six months later, they returned home to Dalton. They had to learn how to keep Starla healthy, operate a feeding pump and other medical equipment. They keep their home as clean as a hospital because Starla's immune system is so weak a common cold could kill her.
Starla is categorized as disabled, visits a doctor every two weeks and may not be able to attend school due to her susceptibility to illness, the Haleys said.
"They'll never be able to make up for what she lost," Melissa said. "The thing I hope is that they'll never be able to do this to another family."
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...