A federal court in New Hampshire this month ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay $21.5 million in medical-malpractice damages to a stroke victim for failing to properly diagnose and treat the patient.
U.S. District Judge Landya McCafferty issued the ruling on April 3, marking the largest individual personal-injury judgement in New Hampshire history, according to the plaintiff’s legal team.
The victim, 60-year-old Navy veteran Michael Farley, sought help from the VA in 2010 after experiencing partial blindness and headaches. Six weeks later, he suffered a massive stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome,” meaning he remains fully conscious and able to feel pain but controls only minor movements of his eyes and head.
The judge concluded that the patient suffered from “harrowing psychological trauma” from the incident.
“Mr. Farley lay trapped inside his paralyzed body, lucid and mentally alive, but he could not communicate that to his caregivers and family — who were in his hospital room discussing end-of-life scenarios,” she wrote in the ruling.
Farley’s legal team said in a statement this week that the veteran’s life will never be the same but that the verdict “allows him to spend it with the people that he cares about and that care about him.”
The VA said in a statement on Tuesday that the department is committed to providing “quality, safe and effective health care” for former troops. “We take seriously any issue that occurs at any of our health care facilities across the country and work hard to improve care for all veterans,” the agency said in a statement.
The judge determined that the VA discharged the patient without appropriate medication or follow-up care after he showed up at an urgent-care center in Manchester, N.H., with symptoms of a stroke.
According to court documents, a physician ordered Farley to be transferred to a facility capable of higher-level stroke care after testing confirmed a stroke had likely occurred, but the doctor canceled the move amid confusion about the best course of action.
The physician never consulted a cardiologist or neurologist, both of which were available at the Manchester clinic. Instead he discharged Farley and instructed him to take two baby aspirin a day, in addition to arranging for staff to call him and schedule a cardiology appointment.
One expert witness testified that the VA “medically abandoned” the patient.
Farley showed up at the clinic a month later for a routine visit. His primary-care physician was never aware that he had previously suffered a stroke, according to the doctor’s deposition.
One day later, Farley was found unresponsive in his home after a second stroke.
The judge determined that the urgent-care physician “inadvertently and negligently divorced himself from Mr. Farley’s care” by not following medical standards for testing, referrals to specialists, prescribing medications and ensuring continuity of care for stroke victims.
The court ordered the VA to pay about $13.4 million to cover the cost of medical care for the duration of Farley’s life, as well as $8.2 million in damages for pain and suffering.
The previous highest personal-injury award in New Hampshire was $21.06 million in a 2012 pharmaceutical case that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned.