A Fairfax Circuit Court jury has awarded $1.5 million to the survivors of a woman who died from pregnancy complications that her family said were never diagnosed by her doctor.
A five-woman, two-man jury found that 35-year-old Nancy Wohlfarth's death resulted in part from the negligence of Dr. Nelson Tart because he failed to identify pregnancy-related hypertension. After deliberating three days, the jury awarded Wohlfarth's 5-year-old daughter, Reva Anne, $1.1 million and her husband, Donald, $400,000.
The $1.5 million award is twice the amount the family had sought in damages against the doctor and twice the amount of the $750,000 ceiling Virginia law sets on awards for pain and suffering. Tart's medical malpractice insurance covers a $1.1 million maximum in payments, according to court records.
Attorneys for Tart, a Falls Church doctor of gynecology and obstetrics, argued that Tart was not negligent and that he was not responsible for her death because he was not present at the hospital where she was being treated the day she died.
The case, which involved six days of testimony before Circuit Court Judge Burch Millsap, has been winding through the court system since Wohlfarth's death Aug. 13, 1977.
Tart is expected to appeal the case, according to court officials. The Wohlfarth family attorney, George Shadoan, said he will seek further court action to overturn the state payment ceiling in the case.
According to court records, Wohlfarth began gaining excessive weight during the last months of her pregnancy. Court testimony was contradictory as to whether she consulted with Tart during that time. But about 3 a.m. Aug. 13, she called Tart, complaining of severe pains in her chest.
Court records submitted by Wohlfarth's husband said Tart told her it was an indigestion or gall bladder-related problem, unconnected to her pregancy. Her husband said Tart instructed her to take an antacid and contact her internist.
Wohlfarth entered George Washington University Hospital about 4 a.m. and a 4-pound, 14-ounce baby was delivered by cesarean section. Two hours later doctors diagnosed Wohlfarth as having hypertension of pregnancy, an illness most freqently contracted by women in their first pregnancy when fluids collect in the body, causing high blood pressure. Several hours later Wohlfarth died of a stroke, a ruptured cerebral artery, autopsy reports showed.
A Medical Malpractice Review Panel found Tart negligent in the case, but found that the negligence was not the cause of the woman's death.
The Wohlfarth family alleged in the suit that Tart failed to recognize the symptoms of the impending hypertension and that the doctor was "guilty of medical negligence in the care and treatment of Nancy Wohlfarth."
Tart countered in legal documents that the patient failed to "follow the instructions and advice given to her" by the doctor.
Donald Wohlfarth, an independent air-conditioning contractor, said he was unable to raise his daughter alone. She has been raised by a longtime friend, the best man at the Wohlfarth's wedding, and his wife who have two children of their own. Wohlfarth said he sees his daughter several times a week.
"I have more faith in the system now than I did five and a half years ago," Wolfarth said after the award. "The jury made a just decision."