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Court issues mixed verdict in malpractice suit over stroke

The state’s highest court Tuesday reversed a medical malpractice award of $9.6 million for pain and suffering that a jury awarded an Olean excavation contractor left paralyzed by an undiagnosed brain aneurysm that led to a massive stroke in 1998.

The Court of Appeals, however, left intact the jury’s award of $7.12 million for other damages, including custodial care and supportive services for Daniel C. Oakes.

The appeals judges ordered a new trial for the pain and suffering damages.

“We feel that we’re vindicated,” said Francis M. Letro, Oakes’ chief attorney. “You can see where the state’s highest court said the proof of malpractice was compelling. That’s what we’ve been saying for 15 years.”

Oakes died last year while the appeal was pending.

Oakes was driving with his wife on July 18, 1998, when he suffered a severe headache and vomiting. The headache persisted for the next three weeks, during which Oakes consulted several doctors, including his primary care physician and a neurologist. He had a scan at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Amherst. The hospital had an arrangement with Dent Neurologic Group for the reading of scans.

The aneurysm in a blood vessel in his brain went undetected until it ruptured Aug. 7, 1998, causing a stroke that left Oakes a quadriplegic.

The Court of Appeals noted the evidence at trial supporting a finding that the brain scan was either misread or not read at all, and that if it had been read properly, the aneurysm could have been detected and the stroke prevented.

Letro and co-counsel Ronald J. Wright said the failure to read the scan or do so accurately had devastating consequences for Oakes.

A Kaleida Health spokesman could not be reached to comment. The 261-bed hospital in Amherst is one of Kaleida’s four hospitals.

Oakes and his wife, Lisa, filed their lawsuit in 2000. In 2008, after a trial on liability and damages, a jury awarded the Oakeses damages totaling approximately $5.1 million.

The jury ordered Kaleida to pay 94 percent of the award, with Oakes’ Olean doctor, Rajnikant Pastel, ordered to pay 5 percent, and Jamestown neurologist Satish K. Mongia ordered to pay 1 percent through their insurance carriers.

State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Drury, however, ordered a new trial on financial damages in the malpractice case because he found the award too low.

In 2009, a second jury awarded Oakes and his wife $16.7 million, on top of $1.1 million that was allowed to remain from the first jury’s verdict. The first jury’s apportionment of responsibility was allowed to stand.

Kaleida and the co-defendants challenged the second jury’s large malpractice award. “We reject most of their arguments,” the State Court of Appeals judges said in their decision.

The appeals judges, however, ordered a new trial on damages for pain and suffering because they found the lower courts erred in holding that causation issues could not be litigated at the second trial, which was for damages only.

“Mr. Oakes had a pre-existing condition, an aneurysm in a blood vessel near his brain,” the court ruled. “Defendants’ malpractice did not cause the aneurysm. Defendants should have been allowed to show that, even with appropriate medical care, some of the injuries that Mr. Oakes suffered were inevitable.”

The appeals court added, “The trial court was mistaken in thinking that the first jury’s verdict resolved this question. The first jury did decide that the malpractice was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Oakes’ stroke, but defendants were entitled to show that some of the pain and suffering that Mr. Oakes endured was not preventable.”

By ruling the causation testimony inadmissible during the second trial, Drury in essence told the jury that “it could not consider the extent to which plaintiff’s injuries resulted from the malpractice,” the court said.

“We conclude that this error requires reversal of the second jury’s awards [totaling $9.6 million] for pain and suffering,” the court ruled.

Oakes died last year in his home. His wife had cared for him since his stroke, with help from health aides, Letro said.

Oakes started his business, R&D Oakes Construction, after high school in 1974 and remained owner and president until 2002, according to his obituary in the Olean Times Herald. He was the Town of Olean highway superintendent from 1994 to 1998 and was also the Pleasant Valley Cemetery superintendent for 12 years, according to his obituary.

“Our claim was he never should have had a stroke,” Letro said. “While we feel vindicated, there’s still no closure.”