Court upholds $7.5 million verdict for Air Force spouse who sued U.S. over treatment
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday upheld a $7.5 million verdict in favor of an Air Force spouse who was disabled by medical malpractice at an Andersen Air Force Base clinic on Guam.
The negligence of Air Force medical staff at the clinic in 2004 directly resulted in Deborah Rutledge suffering severe nerve damage, losing most sensation below her waist and becoming permanently incontinent, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California said in its decision.
In its ruling, the court affirmed a 2008 Guam district court judge’s multi-million-dollar award to Rutledge, saying the amount was not excessive considering the extent of her injuries, which were caused when the clinic staff failed for several weeks to diagnose a herniated spinal disc.
The United States, which is represented by the U.S. attorney’s office in Guam, now has 45 days to request another hearing by the appeals court, said Robert Keogh, attorney for Rutledge and her husband Thomas Rutledge, a retired Air Force master sergeant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mikel Schwab, who represented the United States in the case, said he was not authorized to comment Wednesday, and an office spokesperson was not immediately available. Andersen officials referred all questions to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Deborah and Thomas Rutledge, who now live in Oklahoma, “are pleased [by the ruling] but they don’t have any money yet,” Keogh told Stars and Stripes Wednesday. “They have been fighting this thing since 2004 and they haven’t seen a penny.
“I don’t know what the government is going to do,” he said.
The case was heard on Guam in 2008 and after a month-long trial, a district court judge awarded the couple $7.5 million for pain, suffering and loss of income due to the injuries caused by Air Force medical staff.
According to court documents, Rutledge sought medical help for numbness in her groin, legs and feet at the Andersen family clinic several times in July and August of 2004. A nurse and a doctor’s assistant at the clinic failed to do basic medical examinations for the numbness, did not report the case to supervisors and misdiagnosed Rutledge’s condition during the visits, the Guam district court found.
Despite severe symptoms such as spreading numbness and incontinence, the Air Force never provided Rutledge with access to a medical doctor during her visits. Her condition deteriorated for weeks until she confronted clinic staff and demanded a medical referral to Naval Base Guam.
“She was not being seen by a physician, she was being seen by mid-level providers,” Keogh said. “Any physician would have recognized this as a surgical emergency that she was undergoing.”
Air Force medical staff gave Rutledge a routine referral instead of an emergency referral, which required her to wait five days for an appointment.
At Naval Base Guam, a Navy doctor immediately determined Rutledge suffered from a severe spinal condition caused by a herniated disc and ordered her to be airlifted to Hawaii where an emergency operation was done, court records show.
Rutledge’s symptoms remained after the operation in Hawaii and she still suffers due to nerve damage caused by the untreated herniated disc, according to her attorney and court records.
She “has difficulty sleeping through the night … is unable to sit like a normal person, unable to walk for an extended period of time without experiencing pain, and is permanently disabled,” according to Guam court records.