After Sherry Breeding suffered a stroke in January of last year, proper medication and treatment probably would have allowed the 52-year-old Woodbridge woman to continue to live a healthy life, experts said.
But two of the doctors treating her never prescribed the medication or looked at her test results. Later that month, Breeding suffered another, fatal stroke, and now a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury has awarded Breeding's family $2.5 million in damages for the two doctors' negligence.
The jury found that Breeding's husband, Harlis C. Breeding Jr., and her two children, ages 21 and 9, were entitled to $1.5 million in lost income from Sherry Breeding, who earned $90,000 annually working for Lockheed Martin. The jury also awarded $250,000 apiece to Harlis Breeding and his two daughters for the pain and anguish they suffered, as well as other damages.
Virginia law caps damages in medical malpractice cases at $1.65 million, and the jury award was reduced to that amount by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher, who presided over the trial. The case lasted five days, and the jury deliberated for about seven hours before issuing its verdict Oct. 26.
The jury found Samad Oraee, a neurologist from Woodbridge, and Mert T. Kivanc, a rheumatologist from Falls Church, liable for the damages. Kivanc ordered tests to determine the cause of Breeding's first stroke, and Oraee saw Breeding in an office visit after she was discharged from the hospital, but neither doctor received the test results nor prescribed medication to prevent another stroke, trial testimony showed.
The doctors testified that they treated Breeding appropriately. Neither they nor their attorneys returned phone calls seeking comment.
"The lesson of this case," said William E. Artz, the Breeding family's attorney, "is if you, as a physician, order lab studies, that you have an obligation to follow up on those studies. And that pertains not only to the doctor that ordered the studies but all other physicians rendering care to the patient. And that was the failure here."
Large dollar awards are unusual from Fairfax juries, local lawyers said. But after hearing testimony from Breeding's husband, older daughter and five physician experts, as well as from the defendants and their experts, "there was enough outrage among the jurors to make a finding of negligence with regards to two of the doctors," said jury foreman Mitchell J. Ross of Reston. A third doctor was cleared of any liability.
Sherry Breeding first went to the Potomac Hospital emergency room in Woodbridge on Jan. 3, 2003, complaining of weakness in her left arm, headaches, slurred speech and left facial droop. Court records indicate that Oraee diagnosed a stroke, and Breeding was transferred to Inova Fairfax Hospital for an MRI.
Oraee asked for consultation from a rheumatologist, a specialist in the study of arthritis, joints, muscles and bones, and records show that on Jan. 7, Kivanc ordered tests to examine the clotting properties of Breeding's blood. Improper blood clotting can cause a stroke by blocking blood flow to the brain.
Breeding was discharged from Inova Fairfax the next day, and, her attorneys found, the test results were sent to the hospital electronically Jan.14. The results showed Breeding did suffer from a clotting syndrome that made her a likely candidate for another stroke, which is treatable with anti-clotting medicines such as Heparin or Coumarin, court records state.
Breeding visited Oraee on Jan. 17, but, her attorneys said, he did not have the test results and did not seek them and also did not prescribe Heparin or Coumarin. With the knowledge and treatment, her attorneys said, Breeding had a better than 50 percent chance for a normal life expectancy and good quality of life.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 29, Breeding suffered a more devastating stroke. She eventually was overwhelmed by infections, and her family removed her from life support March 12, 2003. The family declined to be interviewed.
Experts for the doctors testified that Breeding's test results did not definitively show her clotting syndrome, that following up with the test results was not Oraee's responsibility and that predicting a recurrence of strokes was difficult.
Ross, the jury foreman, said he did not know whether Breeding's experience was an anomaly, "but I did come away with a feeling that if I had a friend or family member in a hospital setting, I'd pay close attention to the care they were getting."