After watching two hours of videotaped testimony from a cancer patient who died more than a year ago, a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday awarded $600,000 in damages to the patient's wife in a medical malpractice suit.
The award, believed to be one of the largest of its kind at the Superior Court, was against George A. (Doc) Resta, who for many years was the team physician for both the Washington Redskins and the Washington Senators.
Resta died in 1977 of congestive heart failure.
Resta's medical malpractice insurance covers claims up to $2 million, according to Leonard J. Keilp, an attorney who represented both the patient, James Lee Lasley, and his wife, Doris.
The jury award, reached after a five-day trial before Judge DeWitt S. Hyde, is expected to be appealed.
Lasley, a pharmacist at Doctors Hospital, was 35 years old when he died on July 30, 1977, four years after his first visit to Resta, according to court records. During the trial, Keilp said he argued that Resta failed to properly diagnose and treat Lasley's illness and told him that his condition eventually would clear itself up.
Lasley's primary type of cancer "has a 90 to 95 percent rate of cure," Keilp said in an interview
yesterday, "and those were his chances of survival if Resta had found the cancer when he first saw Lasley."
Resta's attorney, Lawrence T. Scott, said he told the jury that Resta did not claim to be a cancer specialist and contended that Lasley should not have considered Resta an expert in that field.
Scott also argued that other physicians were unable to diagnose Lasley's illness. In addition, he said he told the jury, Lasley's cancer was in the terminal stages as early as October 1974, a month before he became Resta's patient.
Eventually, Lasley was admitted to Doctors Hospital three times and later to Georgetown 17 times, where his illness ultimately was diagnosed in October 1975, attorney Keilp said. Lasley's hospital bills totaled $75,000 for 204 days, Keilp said.
It was in a hospital room at Georgetown, where Lasley was a teminal cancer patient, that he tape-recorded his testimony, anticipating that he would file a lawsuit against Resta, but that he would not live to testify in court, attorneys in the case said.
A week ago, the Superior Court jury of two men and four women watched that testimony on a five-foot screen in a darkened courtroom for nearly two hours. Lasley, dressed in a blue bathrobe, sat in his hospital bed and recounted in a claim, matter-of-fact-way what happened to him following his visit to Resta, attorneys said.
Attorneys for both Lasley and Resta were present during the taping in the hospital room and each questioned the dying man about the treatment he had received from Resta. Efforts were made to keep Lasley's testimony lowkey and to avoid the emotional impact of his illness.
"We had moved the transfusion botles so they didn't show, and turned the bed so that you couldn't tell it was a hospital room. We opened the window and let in natural light, so that his color didn't look so bad," Keilp said.
When the tape was completed, it was kept in a vault at the Superior Court until it was called for at the trial last week. Judge Hyde had reviewed the tape before it was presented to the jury, over the vigorous objections of Resta's lawyer, who contended the tape prejudiced his client's case.
Doris Lasley, who paid $800 for the tape of her husband's testimony broke into tears several times during the trial and "sobbed"when the jury's verdict was announced yesterday, an observer said. Mrs. Lasley, a librarian at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., could not be reached for comment.
Lasley's early symptoms included temporary development of "female breasts," and a shrinking of his right testicle, according to court testimony. Later, he developed pains in his abdomen and back, fever and chills, Keilp said.
According to testimony from Mrs. Lasley and other evidence presented at the trial, James Lasley was at first enraged when he learned that he suffered from terminal cancer and that his life might have been saved with early diagnosis. Later, Lasley experienced depression and at one point visited a Texas clinic that specializes in counseling the terminally ill, the evidence showed.
Restats will, filed in the Superior Court, shows he left an estate valued at approximately $125,000, including his residence at 2900 Ft. Baker Dr. SE. Resta was 72 years old at the time of his death.
Keilp placed a claim against Resta's estate in November 1977, when he notified the court that a medical malpractice suit had been filed against Resta. According to court records, Keilp asked that disbursement of Resta's assets be halted until the suit was resolved.
Keilp, who will receive one-third of the jury award as his fee, said that during the 3 1/2 hours of jury deliberations, Resta's lawyer offered to settle the lawsuit -- in advance of the verdict -- for $150,000. "We turned them down," Keilp said.