Attorneys David Woodruff and Henry Miniter of Denver Trial Lawyers received a $2.8 million verdict from a jury for their client, who suffered permanent paralysis after being mistakenly discharged from the emergency department at Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo.
According to an announcement from Denver Trial Lawyers, the verdict is believed to be one of the largest in Pueblo County history.
Woodruff and Miniter represented Sam Chifalo and his wife Kathy. Chifalo, who was 63 at the time of his injury, had lived with mild cerebral palsy, which caused him to have a limp and weakness in his left arm and leg. Following the incident, however, he is an “incomplete” quadriplegic, unable to use his legs and his left arm, with only limited sensation and movement in his right arm.
On Feb. 11, 2016, Chifalo tripped and fell in his bedroom and hit his face against an armoire, hyperextending his neck and injuring his spine. Kathy Chifalo found him immobile on the floor and called 911. According to the paramedics who treated Chifalo, they found he had low blood pressure and a low heart rate, signs of a spinal cord injury. They transported him to Parkview Hospital in Pueblo on a spine board and in a cervical collar with “spinal precautions.”
At Parkview, a nurse in the emergency room directly took the handoff from the paramedics and, according to Woodruff, failed to sign a handoff sheet and to capture his symptoms.
At trial, the paramedic testified that it was his standard practice to report directly to the nurse and that he would have reported the signs and symptoms and his concern about a spinal cord injury. The nurse, however, denied this and that Chifalo demonstrated such symptoms. Her documentation did not mention neurologic symptoms or that he was unable to feel his arms and legs. She had entered an order for a CT scan of his head and neck, which signaled to the ER team, including the ER physician, Dr. Ashley Ostrand, that Chifalo was a potential head injury patient rather than a spinal cord injury patient.
The CT scan gave normal results. According to Woodruff, though, a CT scan cannot identify soft-tissue injuries to the spinal cord, and Chifalo did not receive the correct tests, simply because the ER team did not recognize that he had neurologic symptoms. Chifalo also asked, and was denied, an MRI of his neck and was instead told to go to an orthopedic surgeon.
“He was seen by two nurses, a physician and a technician, yet was ultimately discharged unable to walk. No one on the team recognized that he had new neurologic symptoms indicative of a spinal cord injury,” Woodruff said. “Sadly, I believe this ER team suffered from ‘tunnel vision.’ I think they heard that he had cerebral palsy and just assumed that this was the reason for his lack of sensation or movement in his arms and legs.”
Woodruff said Chifalo had to be carried out of the ER and carried into his car. His neighbors testified at trial that they had to come over to help carry him into the house, and back out to the car the next morning for his orthopedic surgery appointment. At the orthopedic surgeon’s office, a physician’s assistant said they missed something serious at the ER, and sent him back to the hospital. Back at the ER, the same nurse and the same doctor treated Chifalo and ordered an MRI, which revealed that he had suffered an acute disk herniation in his cervical spine. The disk had protruded up against his spinal cord, flattening it. A consultation with a neurosurgeon confirmed that he needed immediate emergency surgery to decompress the spinal cord by removing bone or soft tissue.
“Unfortunately, the 38-hour delay in getting this surgery accomplished caused Mr. Chifalo’s injury to be permanent,” Woodruff said. At trial, a neurosurgery expert witness, testified that if his injury had been diagnosed the morning before, he could have had immediate surgery to decompress the spine and likely would have recovered some or all of his function.
At trial, Woodruff presented evidence that the Parkview Hospital’s emergency department staff should have recognized severe weakness and lack of motion in Chifalo’s arms and legs. Instead, he said, the nursing staff failed to relay information from the paramedics about Chifalo’s symptoms, leading to his premature discharge. By the time Chifalo returned to the ER, his spinal cord injury was irreparable.
The Denver Trial Lawyers team filed a lawsuit against Parkview Medical Center, Ostrand and two nurses who cared for Chifalo. Ostrand settled prior to trial for a confidential amount, and the case proceeded to trial against Parkview as the sole defendant.
Parkview’s position was that the ER staff was not negligent and did not miss any neurologic signs or symptoms. Parkview and its nurses testified at trial that, although they have no memory of Chifalo, he could not have had any neurologic symptoms because they did not document any. Woodruff said he countered that argument with his closing arguments, though, pointing to a 911 call and the paramedic’s notes showing he had those symptoms even before arriving at the hospital and suggested the hospital’s lack of notes or notice of those symptoms demonstrated their negligence.
The hospital also attempted to blame Ostrand, designating her as a “nonparty at fault” and called an ER expert witness to testify that she was negligent. That expert, Woodruff said, testified that the entire ER staff was negligent for missing the patient’s symptoms. Woodruff urged the jury to hold Parkview Medical Center, not Ostrand, responsible.
Following the trial, Woodruff said he and Miniter were able to talk wih two jurors who were “incensed” about the hospital’s approach. “The hospital didn’t document his symptoms and then relied on their own failure to document to say he didn’t even have them. The jury had a very pragmatic about the damages,” Woodruff said.
Two months prior to trial, Woodruff and Miniter served a statutory offer of settlement of only $495,000 on Parkview Medical Center. The case instead proceeded to a nine-day jury trial.
The jury was out for approximately six hours, and returned a verdict of $3,028,678. The jury apportioned 95% responsibility on the hospital and 5% on Ostrand. Only $127,500 of the jury’s award was for “noneconomic damages,” leaving most of Chifalo’s award uncapped.
“This case, like all medical malpractice cases, was incredibly sad because Mr. Chifalo will never fully recover what he lost,” Woodruff said. “But the jury’s award will help him recover some dignity and independence in his life completely confined to a wheelchair.”
Woodruff and Miniter also obtained a $5.2 million judgment after jury verdict in a birth injury case in Colorado Springs in July 2017.
— Tony Flesor