Jury awards Waverly family $55 million in Hopkins malpractice case

After hours of labor, Enso Martinez cried as his wife, Rebecca Fielding, was carried from their Waverly home on a stretcher en route to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Fielding, who had wanted to deliver her baby at home with the help of a midwife, assured her husband that everything would be OK.

But she never expected to wait more than two hours for an emergency Caesarean section after being rushed to the hospital by ambulance that morning in March 2010.

If a team of doctors and nurses had performed the surgery earlier, Martinez and Fielding contend, their son, Enzo, would now be a normal 2-year-old boy practicing new words and toddling across the floor. Instead, the child sat in his parents' arms Tuesday, severely and permanently mentally and physically disabled.

Their saga and evidence presented in their court case convinced a Baltimore Circuit Court jury to award them $55 million — one of the largest malpractice judgments in Maryland history, according to trial lawyers and legal experts. If the judgment stands, Fielding and Martinez will receive about $29.6 million after a state cap on damages is applied, and the money will be kept in a trust for the child's needs, the couple's lawyer, Gary A. Wais, said.

"I don't know what was going on in their brains, and I don't know what was going on behind the scenes, and I don't know what was going on with other patients, but whatever it was that went wrong … I hope that it was at least a wake-up call or a learning experience, and it doesn't happen again," Fielding said.

Hopkins plans to appeal the verdict, according to Gary Stephenson, director of media relations and public affairs.

"While we certainly sympathize with Ms. Fielding's situation, we are frankly stunned and surprised that the jury found for the plaintiff in this case given the evidence that was presented," Stephenson said in a statement. "We strongly deny the allegations in Ms. Fielding's complaint and continue to firmly believe that the medical care provided to Ms. Fielding by Hopkins was entirely appropriate given the circumstances."

The jury awarded $25 million for future medical expenses and a life-care plan, $4 million for future lost wages, and $26 million for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. Because of the state cap, the $26 million was reduced to $665,000, Wais said.

Wais said the family could use the money to provide 24-hour, in-home care for Enzo; build a one-story, wheelchair-accessible house to replace their three-story home; and pay for treatments and equipment that are not covered by insurance.

Martinez and Fielding argued the hospital and its parent, Johns Hopkins Health System Corp., also named in the civil lawsuit, were negligent in their care for Fielding and the couple's then-unborn son. They contend their child's cerebral palsy and seizure disorder was caused by a loss of oxygen to the brain while Fielding waited for the Caesarean section.

Wais dismissed arguments from Johns Hopkins' attorneys that the boy lost oxygen during prior stages of the mother's labor at the family's home — not at the hospital. Hopkins officials declined to comment further on Tuesday.

In 2011, 24 cases of significant birth injury were reported by hospitals, according to the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That's down from 30 cases in 2010, according to statistics.

Stephen L. Snyder, a high-profile Maryland litigator, said the judgment has the potential to further discourage courtroom battles in malpractice cases. Already, most malpractice cases settle before trial, he said.

"If this case is a wake-up call to the hospitals and insurers, they may be more willing to bring closure to cases sooner and more efficiently without marring their reputation, which ultimately would unburden the courts," Snyder said.

David Ellin, a Baltimore-based personal injury and malpractice lawyer, said the verdict could encourage more attorneys to take on cases like Fielding and Martinez's. Few lawyers, despite a perception created by television commercials or phone-book advertising, handle such cases because they are expensive to litigate, Ellin said.

"It's a very daunting task when you have a case like that," he said. "The child and the family's future depends on it."

Donald H. Beskind, a professor at Duke University School of Law who handled medical practice cases for more than 30 years, said the multimillion-dollar Maryland judgment isn't likely to influence other juries because the outcomes of malpractice lawsuits tend to be very case-specific.

Beskind said juries are typically influenced by three main factors when deliberating on malpractice cases: the degree to which it's clear who was at fault for the negligence, what money would do to improve the plaintiffs' quality of life, and whether the defense did something to offend the jurors, such as attack the plaintiffs.

In her case, Fielding said she had a gut feeling after arriving at the hospital that "something went wrong." She said that after her son was born, she could not get the hospital staff to explain why the child was suffering repeated seizures. Fielding and her husband said it took months to fully understand the extent of Enzo's injuries.

With some time and reflection, Fielding, 32, a public health advocate, said she and her husband are focusing on the things Enzo can do.

"When he was born, the doctors were maybe merciful enough to not tell us at that point exactly the fact that he will never walk or talk," Fielding said. "They told us he would smile. I remember thinking at the time, 'That's it?' and thinking that was devastating."

Now when she sees Enzo smile, she said, "I understand that it is incredible."