A record-setting jury verdict that could change the face of malpractice litigation in Virginia grew out of a trial that "never had to be," said William Snead, the Fairfax County lawyer who won the case in January.
Snead's clients, Roger and Helen Boyd, sued their obstetrician after he allegedly failed to arrive in time for delivery of their daughter, Veronica Lynn. The child, delivered by nurses at a small hospital in Southwestern Virginia 3 1/2 years ago, suffered severe brain damage.
The Boyds, who were, according to Snead, warned by local lawyers that "you can't win against the hospitals," persevered. They finally were put in touch with Snead through a lawyer referral office.
A federal jury in Charlottesville awarded the Boyds $8.3 million, the biggest verdict in a malpractice case in state history. Before the trial, Snead said, he had offered to settle out of court for the limits of the doctor's insurance coverage, $1 million. The insurance company, St. Paul Fire and Marine, declined.
The jury's decision, in rounded figures:
$1.7*million for care of the child until age 18.
$1.85 million for care from age 18 until death and for Veronica's pain and suffering.
*$1.5 million for the mother's emotional distress.
*$1.1 million for the father's distress.
*$1 million in punitive damages on behalf of the mother.
*$1 million in punitive damages on behalf of the child.
The verdict far exceeded Virginia's statutory cap on such awards. The cap, now $1 million, was $750,000 at the time of Veronica's birth. Snead has asked U.S. District Judge James H. Michael Jr. to declare the cap unconstitutional, and a favorable ruling by Michael could spell the beginning of a number of large malpractice awards in the state. The law was enacted nine years ago.
"When you look at those numbers, those aren't wild numbers," the lawyer said.
Snead said it cost about $50,000 to prepare for trial. He is entitled to a contingency fee of one-third of the $8.3 million if the verdict is upheld on appeal, but said he may take less: "I have a right to shave that fee."
Snead and his associates, he said, "spend a lot of time in this office screening cases. If we take one out of 30, I'd be surprised.
"First, we want a clear case of malpractice. We don't want a borderline case either way. Second, we want clear evidence of malpractice. In obstetrics, you can easily find deviation from the standard of care in management of the mother's labor. But a bad result is not necessarily malpractice.
"Third, damages. The concept of equal justice under law is somewhat embarrassing in practice. These cases are very expensive to put on. You'd like to think that everybody who's injured is going to be compensated, but it isn't true."
And a postscript: Veronica, whose life expectancy was put at 28 in expert testimony, died in February, a month after the trial. The jury's verdict remains the same. "No rebates," Snead said.