A former nurse at Prince George's Hospital Center was ordered by a jury yesterday to pay $4 million in a malpractice lawsuit filed on behalf of a patient who never regained consciousness after giving birth under anesthesia at the hospital in 1980.
The nurse, Vincent Romanaukas, who lives in Pennsylvania, was an anesthetist at the hospital in Cheverly. On Nov. 1, 1980, she was responsible for monitoring the patient's vital signs during an emergency Caesarean section.
The child was born healthy, but the mother, Tammy Jones of Capitol Heights, who was 15, suffered irreversible brain damage and remains in a "persistent vegetative state."
Jones's attorney, Edward P. Camus, argued that her oxygen supply was interrupted for more than five minutes after her baby boy was delivered, probably because of a blockage in the oxygen hose.
Romanaukas, 42, admits to having been addicted to a powerful pain-killing drug called fentanyl in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Camus tried to convince the Circuit Court jury that Romanaukas was under the drug's influence on the night of Jones's Caesarean section and, as a result, failed to detect the oxygen problem quickly. However, Romanaukas denied using the drug that day.
Romanaukas's attorney, Michael DeGeorge, argued that Jones was the victim of an air embolism, a small bubble that formed in her uterus and traveled to her brain, blocking the flow of blood and causing such swift damage that no one could react in time.
After a two-week trial before Judge Joseph S. Casula, the jury found Romanaukas liable for malpractice and awarded Jones $4 million in compensatory damages. But the jurors awarded no punitive damages, writing on their verdict form that they did not think Romanaukas was under the influence of the pain killer.
Romanaukas, who lives and works as a nurse in Scranton, Pa., declined to comment on the verdict. Her attorney said that because Romanaukas carries less than $250,000 in malpractice insurance, the judge will be asked to reduce the award.
Camus said the money will go to Tammy Jones's mother and guardian, Rose Jones, who also cares for Tammy's son, Tyrone. Tammy Jones is in a District nursing home.
The Jones complaint orginally was filed with the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Office, with Romanaukas as a defendant along with several physicians and the Prince George's County government, which operated the hospital at the time of the incident. An arbitration panel believed the theory of an air embolism and dismissed the complaint in 1987, Camus said.
Camus appealed that finding in Circuit Court. Eventually, out-of-court settlements totaling about $1.5 million were reached with all the defendants except Romanaukas and the Prince George's government.
A Circuit Court judge dismissed the complaint against Prince George's County ruling that the county's charter made it immune to such claims.