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$23M malpractice verdict. Jury award likely largest in local history

By ADAM KREGER
STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTE COUNTY – The recent $23 million award in a medical malpractice lawsuit for a mother whose daughter was born with a severe brain injury is believed to be the largest civil jury verdict in the county’s history.

Iala Suarez, represented by the Miami-based Ratzan Law Group, filed the civil suit in 2013 against Peace River Regional Medical Center (now Bayfront Health Port Charlotte) and Dr. Michael Coffey, a physician there. Suarez had gone to the hospital in August 2010 seeking medical services when she was six months pregnant.

Despite Suarez visiting multiple times with high blood pressure, high protein levels, decreased fetal movement and other issues, no one at the hospital, namely Coffey, offered proper care, the suit alleged.

The plaintiff’s side said Suarez should have been constantly monitored and received necessary steroids for a premature delivery; and perhaps should have been referred to Sarasota Memorial or Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers.

Instead, Suarez’s baby girl was delivered, via C-section, in Charlotte about two months premature and without having received proper steroids. The baby, who spent more than four months at All Children’s Hospital in St.Petersburg, sustained a “catastrophic brain injury” that will affect her for the rest of her life, court documents show.

A two-week trial concluded last week at the Charlotte County Justice Center in Punta Gorda, with the jury of six’s verdict.

Suarez and her 4-year-old daughter, Katrina, now live in Miami. Stuart Ratzan, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, speaking on behalf of his client, said Suarez’s life now centers around caring for her daughter.

“It’s a full-time job,” Ratzan said. “Her life is devoted to her daughter. She has to feed her through a tube and monitor for strokes. Caring for her daughter has become her responsibility for her whole life. Now with this (verdict), she’ll have means to help her do that.

The lawyers for the hospital and the doctor did not respond to requests for comment. A hospital spokeswoman confirmed Coffey is still on the medical staff, and said the hospital does not comment on litigation.

The $23 million jury verdict is the largest Ratzan has been a part of in his 24 years of practicing law.

For perspective, the top five largest court judgments against businesses in Central Florida in 2014 ranged from $4.3 million to $12.5 million, according to the Orlando Business Journal, which covers a seven-county area of 3 million residents.

In April, The Washington Post reported on the largest medical malpractice award in the entire state of New Hampshire’s history, which was $22 million.

April also featured the highest ever in Colorado at $17.8 million, according to the Denver Post.

“To my knowledge, (the $23 million award) is the biggest (in Charlotte County)”, said Murdock-based attorney Cort Frohlich, who has been a local attorney since 1976 and claims on his website to have helped render the now-previous record.

This week, officials with the 20th Judicial Circuit, the Charlotte County Justice Center, the Florida Bar and the Florida Justice Association couldn’t say otherwise.

Ratzan said large awards can not only help plaintiffs, but also can act as a deterrent for other negligent activity.

“It is important because, when jurors identify neglect based on evidence – whether in hospitals, on the roadways, or anywhere – it makes it safer for everyone,” he said.

Some legislatures have been lobbying for a cap on verdicts in medical malpractice cases, which Ratzan opposes.

“We believe in damage cap in any case is unconstitutional because the legislature doesn’t hear the cases,” the lawyer said.

“Jurors are responsible for hearing the cases, and it’s an individual’s right to his day in court before a jury.”

The Sun was able to find phone numbers for half of the jurors from the Suarez case. None could be reached.

The jury determinded Coffey was 70 percent responsible for Suarez’s baby’s injury, and Peace River was 30 percent at fault. They decided Suarez’s medical bills and loss of companionship were worth $9.6 million. The girl’s damages, the jury said, amount to $13.5 million.