Judge orders feds to pay couple $9.47M in malpractice suit over surgery at Conn. VA hospital

By ALEX WOOD | Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn. | Published: March 29, 2021

MANCHESTER, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — A judge has ordered the federal government to pay a Manchester couple $9.47 million compensation for life-threatening injuries and long-term disabilities caused to the husband by what the judge found to be medical malpractice during abdominal surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven in 2015.

U.S. District Judge Victor A. Bolden ordered the government to pay Eric March $3.27 million for "economic damages," such as past and future medical expenses and lost earning capacity, and $5 million in "non-economic damages" the for "significant physical, psychological and emotional harm" he has suffered.

The judge ordered the government to pay March's wife, Dina, $1.2 million for "loss of consortium," the practical and "sentimental" changes to their marital relationship.

The judge, who presided over a four-day non-jury trial in the case in October in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, quoted Dina March as testifying that, before her husband's injuries, she was "treated like a princess, in a sense" but is now "like a nursemaid."

The judge's 75-page decision, issued March 5, includes the following information on Eric March's medical history: He had suffered from intestinal problems since 2006, when he began experiencing abdominal pain and learned that he had a condition that eventually developed into diverticulitis, an infection caused by small air pockets around the large intestine.

In 2011, the pain became severe, and Dr. Maher Suede removed about 90% of the diseased area of his large intestine at Manchester Memorial Hospital.

The 2015 surgery at the VA Hospital was for a hernia, or weakened area of the abdominal wall, that had been causing March pain. Dr. Marko Lujic, a fourth-year resident, or surgeon in training, performed the operation under the supervision of Dr. Robert Schlessel, who was "scrubbed" and watched most of the operation.

The surgery involved removal of "adhesions," scar tissue that sticks the intestine to the abdominal wall. There are several ways to do this, including "electrocautery," burning away the adhesions, which the judge described as the most dangerous "method of last resort."

Both Lujic and Schlessel testified that, during electrocautery, heat can be transferred from one area of the body to another and cause a burn injury that can progress over several days to complete perforation of the intestinal wall.

The two doctors testified that they didn't remember details of the operation on March, basing their testimony on a post-operative note and their general practices.

A contested issue during the case was how often — and exactly when — the surgeons inspected March's small intestine for possible injuries during the surgery, which was performed by laparoscopic methods, using small incisions and a camera that projected the laparoscope's pictures onto two large monitors.

The surgery took place on June 15, 2015, and March was discharged from the VA Hospital five days later. Three days after his discharge, he went to Manchester Hospital with problems that included "swelling, and yellow drainage from his abdominal wall."

Suede performed what he described as an "emergency operation" on March at Manchester Hospital, which he described as "life-saving." In a second surgery, performed on June 26, 2015, Suede removed parts of the intestine. He testified that March had "severe infection" and "abscesses and hernias of the abdominal wall."

"It is more likely than not that the failure of Drs. Schlessel and Lujic to conduct a final inspection of the bowel and identify thermal injuries caused the injuries" that subsequently caused March to go to Manchester Hospital and "the surgeries and permanent injuries that followed," the judge wrote.

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