A Florida jury increased to nearly $217 million the damages awarded to a Tampa man who was left brain-damaged and disabled after hospital emergency room doctors misdiagnosed stroke symptoms.
The Hillsborough County jury added $100.1 million in punitive damages for Allan Navarro and his family after returning a verdict of nearly $116.7 million for compensatory damages a few days earlier, following testimony in a three-week civil trial.
The family and their attorneys said the entire amount of punitive damages will be donated to charities to help people with spinal cord and brain injuries.
“This isn’t about money, this was about the quest for justice,” said Navarro’s brother-in-law, Ed Bilbao. “And today in this court, justice was served.”
An obviously emotional Navarro, propped up in an electric wheelchair, mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
The doctors are expected to appeal the verdict. Their attorney, Brian Stokes, declined to comment after court adjourned.
Navarro, 50, who once played pro basketball in the Philippines, is confined to a wheelchair and at risk of suffocating every time he swallows food because ER doctors at Tampa’s University Community Hospital misdiagnosed his stroke symptoms during a visit in August 2000, his attorneys said.
Navarro went to the ER complaining of nausea, headache, dizziness and double vision. Despite telling a nurse he had a family history of strokes, the attending physician discharged him with a diagnosis of sinusitis and a prescription for painkillers, his attorneys said.
The next morning, Navarro returned to the hospital with more serious symptoms. By that afternoon, he needed surgery to relieve brain swelling.
He spent a month hospitalized and about three months in a coma.
Navarro and his family sued physician Michael P. Austin and two physicians’ groups contracted to provide emergency room service. Those groups have since disbanded, according to attorneys.
During the trial, Austin testified that the man who performed Navarro’s initial physical exam was an unlicensed physician’s assistant.
Navarro’s case was filed before Florida placed caps on some types of malpractice awards to stem skyrocketing premiums and bring down medical costs. His attorneys said efforts to settle with the doctors’ insurance company within their policy limits were rejected.
The hospital was not named in the lawsuit.
Family attorney Steve Yerrid said he’ll pursue damages from the insurance company, which is now claiming in a lawsuit that it has no duty to defend Austin because the doctor breached his contract.
“We’re coming after them next,” vowed Yerrid, who was part of a team of lawyers that brought Florida’s landmark suit against tobacco companies and has won numerous other multimillion dollar verdicts.
“For all those people who believe in tort reform, they better find a new day job,” Yerrid said. “We’re here to stay.”
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