A Northeast Washington woman who blamed her doctor for the death of her son who was stillborn five years ago was awarded $370,000 yesterday by a D.C. Superior Court jury.
It is believed to be only the second time in the city's history that a jury has awarded damages because of the death of a fetus. Last month, the D.C. Court of Appeals held for the first time that a fetus is a person and that families can file suit under the city's wrongful death statute if a fetus dies because of the negligence of a third party.
"It's been a long road since 1979," said Maxine Williams' attorney, Jack H. Olender, after yesterday's verdict. "Although no amount can compensate for the loss of a human life, the jury has said by its verdict that a human life has a substantial value."
Williams, an 18-year-old restaurant worker at the time of the stillbirth, filed suit against her obstetrician and Greater Southeast Community Hospital. She asserted that her baby was stillborn in the 33rd week of pregnancy because she did not receive adequate medical attention.
The hospital, which denied any wrongdoing, had argued earlier that the suit should not go to trial because a fetus is not a person. The appeals court dismissed that view in its recent decision and ordered that Williams' claim be heard by a jury.
Olender said the hospital agreed to pay Williams $75,000 after the appeals court issued its ruling. The recent trial focused on the actions of Williams' obstetrician, Llewelyn Crooks.
Williams contended that about 6 p.m. on May 22, 1979, she called Crooks to tell him that her water had broken and he told her to go to the hospital. According to Williams, Crooks had only occasional telephone conversations with the hospital staff.
Olender maintained that the fetus was in immediate danger because the fluid in Williams' uterus had drained before labor. Those circumstances threatened to block the umbilical cord, cutting off blood and oxygen to the fetus.
Williams, hospitalized under Medicaid, was attended by a resident training to be an obstetrician instead of a trained obstetrician such as Crooks, Olender contended.
While Williams lay in the hospital's delivery area, Crooks negligently failed to make any further inquiries until 9 the next morning, Olender argued. The fetus' heart had already stopped five hours earlier and experts testified that the cause of death was a constricted umbilical cord.
Crooks maintained that it was the hospital's responsibility to call him if there were problems with the fetus' health.
Asked if Crooks would appeal yesterday's verdict, his attorney, John C. Hayes Jr., said, "I have no idea at this point."