A federal jury in Charlottesville has awarded $8.3 million to the parents of a severely retarded Virginia girl after finding that she might have been born without brain damage if the physician handling her birth had not been negligent.
The judgment is the largest ever awarded in a medical malpractice case in any court in Virginia, according to the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.
The Virginia legislature imposed a $750,000 maximum on awards in medical malpractice cases in 1976, so the verdict also provides an opportunity for the constitutionality of that law to be tested.
After a week-long trial in U.S. District Court, the seven-member jury deliberated 5 1/4 hours Monday night before finding Dr. Ricardo A. Bulala negligent in the delivery of Veronica Lynn Boyd, whose third birthday is Jan. 31.
The girl, whose family now lives in Newport News, was born in Richlands, a small town in the depressed, coal-mining region of Southwest Virginia. Bulala was an obstetrician at Clinch Valley Community Hospital there.
Bulala, according to Boyd's lawyers, did not arrive at the hospital until five minutes after the girl's birth despite indications during her mother's labor that there were complications. The child was delivered by nurses without any physician present, the attorneys said.
Expert witnesses testified that Bulala should have arrived at the hospital at least an hour before he did, according to Boyd's attorneys.
Bulala has since moved to Baltimore and neither he nor his attorneys returned phone calls yesterday.
According to Boyd's attorneys, Bulala contended that nurses were responsible for the girl's injuries and that he would have been at the hospital if they had summoned him or indicated there were problems.
Lawyers familiar with the case said Bulala will appeal the verdict to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
Doctors testified that oxygen deprivation during the last 15 minutes of the mother's labor caused the girl's injuries. She suffers from cerebral palsy, profound retardation and seizures, will never walk or talk and will only reach a mental age of 1 1/2 years, according to Rosemarie Annunziata, one of her attorneys.
To award damages in a malpractice case in Virginia a jury must find the physician negligent and that his negligence caused the victim's injuries.
Helen Boyd, Veronica's 24-year-old mother, said yesterday by telephone from Newport News that her daughter's care had cost $117,000 since her birth in 1982.
"We were sort of stunned," Boyd said of the verdict. "We never expected that much." The Boyds have one other child, a healthy 8-year-old daughter.