The family of a 30-year-old Falls Church woman who died of cervical cancer has been awarded more than $2.1 million by a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury that found that the woman's gynecologist repeatedly failed to recognize and treat the woman's condition in the years before her death.
Attorneys for the family of Heather L. Burzio said medical records show that abnormalities first appeared in her Pap smears in September 1995. But a succession of doctors and laboratories did not recommend or provide the necessary treatment for Burzio, according to a lawsuit she filed in September 1998, shortly after undergoing a hysterectomy.
The month after the surgery, Burzio learned that the cancer had spread through her body, and she died in November 1998. Her older sister, Kimberley C. Burzio, continued the lawsuit, and a Fairfax jury late Thursday awarded $1 million to her for sorrow and mental anguish and another $1 million to Carolyn R. Burzio, the sisters' mother. The jury also awarded $158,788 for medical expenses and $14,330 for funeral expenses.
Heather Burzio was studying to become a court reporter, said one of her attorneys, Dominique D. Michel. But Burzio did not have a job when she died and did not have any children. The jury's award, based solely on her family's mental anguish, is one of the highest such awards ever in the state, Michel said.
Virginia law limits medical malpractice awards to $1 million, and Michel said she expects Circuit Court Judge Marcus D. Williams to reduce the amount in a post-trial order.
The Burzio family initially sued five doctors and three laboratories, but when the case went to the jury late Wednesday, three doctors remained as defendants. The jury cleared two of the doctors, but found that Fairfax gynecologist Thomas H. Gresinger was liable.
Gresinger did not return a phone call seeking comment. During the trial, he and an expert witness testified that a virus caused Heather Burzio's cancer to spread rapidly and that it was a rare form undetectable through standard screening methods, according to Mark A. Barondess, Gresinger's attorney.
Barondess said he respected the jury's decision. "But Dr. Gresinger and I vehemently disagree that the evidence supported an award, and Dr. Gresinger will appeal the case," Barondess said.
Barondess added: "You can't blame a person for the disease, and apparently the jury misunderstood that."
Members of Burzio's family did not want to be interviewed, Michel said. She said Burzio had five Pap tests in 18 months, and "she had a near 90 percent chance of being cured as late as April 1997. If you are regularly screened and treated, you just don't die of cervical cancer."
Burzio's Pap tests in 1995 and 1996 found abnormal cells, and she first met with Gresinger in December 1996, according to the lawsuit. Gresinger performed a colposcopy, in which cells are removed from the cervix, and a biopsy, followed by laser treatment. Months later, she still suffered from lesions, but Gresinger did not perform any further procedures, according to the lawsuit.
Burzio was still having problems in April 1998, when she went to another gynecologist for a second opinion. Within a month, she learned she had invasive cancer, and she underwent a series of surgeries and therapies.