Aspirus judgment damages cut: Pharmacists dismissed as defendants in lawsuit

HOUGHTON — The amount of damages awarded to an Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital patient found to have suffered negligent care was reduced to $4.2 million in a court order Tuesday.

Julie Harris, who was a nurse at Aspirus when she was prescribed an antibiotic that caused inner ear and kidney damage, was ordered to receive $2,149,695.55 for loss of earning capacity and $2,084,989.37 for medical and care-taking expenses.

“This is an ongoing situation, and we continue to evaluate our legal options,” Aspirus said in a statement Friday. “While we do not agree with the verdict, it would not be appropriate for us to provide additional information at this time out of respect for all involved.”

Brian McKeen, Harris’s attorney, said he had yet to see the order.

“We thought the present cash value was around $5.5 million, but we haven’t done a final calculation yet,” he said.

Judge Charles Goodman reduced the future damages determined by the jury to gross present cash value, as required under state law. It defines gross present state value as the total amount of future damages reduced to present value at 5 percent per year, compounded annually for each year the damages will continue.

McKeen said the plaintiffs would also file a motion for entry of judgment in the next several weeks to receive payment from Aspirus for costs and attorney fees, which he said was required after Aspirus rejected a settlement in a pretrial case evaluation hearing.

By a 6-2 verdict, a Houghton County jury in December found Harris’s physician, Bonnie Hafeman, professionally negligent, and Aspirus negligent in not properly training its pharmacists and adopting proper pharmacy policies.

Three Aspirus pharmacists originally named in the suit as defendants were dismissed from the case without prejudice in December.

Harris was prescribed the antibiotic tobramycin for an infection. Despite recommendations for patients on the drug to be tested every three or four days, Harris’s attorneys said, Her kidney function was checked twice during two weeks in the hospital, and was not rechecked during six weeks of outpatient therapy.

In December, the jury awarded Harris $2.9 million for loss of earning capacity, $4 million for medical and caretaking expenses and $1 million for pain.

Michael Thomson, an economist retained by the plaintiff, had submitted an estimate of $2,061,305 present real cash value for loss of earnings capacity and $2,653,364 for future and medical and caretaking expenses. Thomson’s figures go through 2055, assuming a life expectancy of 85.5 years; the figures submitted by the jury extend through 2049.

In a court filing laying out the recommended award for damages, the plaintiffs said Harris has had problems with balance, vision, short-term memory, processing information, depression and anxiety. Harris’s cognitive impairment since has also prevented her from making independent life decisions and hampered her ability to perform other tasks, such as driving long distances, the plaintiffs said. She has been unable to return to work since.

“This is a permanent injury for which there is no cure,” McKeen said. “Some patients experience minimal improvement in the first week. She’s at a point where everyone acknowledges it’s a permanent injury that cannot be rectified, cannot be cured.”