A 70-year-old Detroit woman who stopped breathing for up to 22 minutes and suffered brain damage while recovering from surgery performed by a Washington plastic surgeon will receive $2.7 million in a settlement reached yesterday in U.S. District Court here.
Lawyers involved in the case said the amount appears to be the largest pre-verdict settlement in a medical malpractice dispute in the city's history.
District Judge Charles R. Richey yesterday denied a request by defense lawyers that the terms of the settlement remain sealed. "The broad interest of justice requires full disclosure," Richey said, ". . . so that those who are in this profession . . . will endeavor to be more careful to avoid negligence . . . which will result in personal injuries or death or harm to people committed to their care."
Under terms of the settlement, the woman, Edith Slatkin, wife of Detroit car dealer and real estate developer Joseph B. Slatkin, will receive $650,000 from the plastic surgeon, Dr. Clyde Litton; $800,000 from Capitol Hill Hospital; $600,000 from Dr. Edwina M. Shelford, an anesthesiologist; $600,000 from Capitol Hill Anesthesia Associates, Shelford's employer; and $100,000 from Litton's assistant, Dr. Griselda Trinidad.
The agreement, which cut short what was expected to be a two- to three-week trial, was engineered by Richey after viewing a videotape of Slatkin in a Detroit nursing facility where she requires 24-hours-a-day care.
The tape, which Richey had ruled could be shown to the jury if the day-old trial continued, showed Slatkin in "an obviously very painful, terrible condition, and incapable of being a human being any more," the judge said in court yesterday.
The Slatkins met Litton four or five years ago in Palm Beach, according to court papers, and Edith Slatkin was taken in Litton's limousine to the hospital and to dinner at Litton's Wyoming Avenue NW mansion on the eve of her surgery in May last year.
Yesterday Litton disclaimed any negligence in connection with Slatkin's injuries.
"The injury to the brain occurred in the recovery room of which the anesthesia department and hospital recovery room personnel are responsible," Litton said. He said the settlement "exonerates me."
A spokeswoman for Capitol Hill Hospital acknowledged that the hospital "freely admitted in court" that a recovery room nurse had failed to turn on an alarm system on a heart-monitoring machine attached to Slatkin's body.
The nurse discovered Slatkin's breathing problems after noticing that the patient's temperature seemed to have dropped, according to court papers.
The hospital "deemed it proper" to participate in a settlement "that was reasonable" in order to avoid "the additional burden and ordeal" of a trial for the Slatkin family, the doctors involved and the hospital staff, the spokeswoman said.
Slatkin's husband was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Slatkin's lawyer, Jack H. Olender, contended in court papers that Litton and Trinidad were negligent in performing a face lift on Slatkin on May 4 and, only 24 hours later, a second operation called a "tummy tuck" on Slatkin's abdomen.
The court papers said that general anesthesia was administered to Slatkin through a nasal tube during the second day's surgery because swelling of her cheeks and lower jaw from the face lift prevented use of a safer, oral tube.
Insertion of the nasal tube may have caused swelling in Slatkin's throat and contributed to her breathing difficulties, Olender argued. He also contended that the cumulative effects of anesthesia and drugs given to Slatkin "back-to-back" over two days were a factor in her injuries.
The court papers said that a registered nurse, Terry DuShole, connected Slatkin to a cardiac monitor in the recovery room but did not turn on the unit's alarm system. DuShole then left to attend to another patient in the recovery room. DuShole later said Slatkin was left unattended for about five minutes.
Olender contended that laboratory tests on the oxygen level in Slatkin's blood indicated, however, that she had been in "respiratory arrest" for from 11 to 22 minutes. Slatkin was found "without blood pressure or pulse," Olender said.
"The operation was performed well," Litton said yesterday. "She was a personal friend of mine. I feel so bad -- I would have done anything in the world to help that woman." Litton said he hoped the settlement would not appear as "a blur on my record, when I had nothing to do with [the injuries]. It's a hell of a blow to any surgeon."