A paralyzed Vietnam War veteran from Columbia settled a suit with the U.S. government for $3.2 million in October after he offered evidence that the Veterans Affairs hospital that treated him failed to send him to a spine surgeon, leading to his paralysis, his attorneys report.
Lee Atkinson of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley in Athens, Georgia, reported that the veteran, whose name was withheld, suffered a lower back injury in a helicopter crash during the war and was briefly hospitalized before finishing his tour and being honorably discharged and receiving a Purple Heart.
After the war, he settled in Newberry County, where he worked as a contractor. Over time, his back injury became painful and he sought treatment at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
An MRI showed he had a disc extrusion that severely compressed the cauda equina nerves in his lower spine, Atkinson said. Expert witnesses later confirmed he required surgery to decompress the nerves to prevent permanent damage and the resulting lack of sensation and function below the waist.
Instead of referring him to a surgeon, the Columbia VAMC gave him drugs to manage his pain and referred him to a physical therapist, his complaint alleged. After 16 months of “ineffective treatment,” the veteran woke up one day in excruciating pain, realizing he had lost the ability to stand.
He was admitted to the VAMC in 2012, and underwent another MRI confirming his compressed nerves. He said that rather than conduct surgery or immediately refer him to a surgeon, the VAMC heavily drugged him and put him into a medically induced coma. When he woke up, he realized he had lost sensation and function below the waist.
The VAMC physicians eventually sent him to a surgeon a few weeks later, where he underwent decompression surgery, but his cauda equina nerves had already been permanently damaged, the complaint alleged.
As a result, the veteran lost sensation in his legs below the knees and is incapable of raising his feet. While he is able to walk short distances with the aid of a rolling walker and braces, he primarily relies on a wheelchair to get around.
The veteran sued the federal government in 2015, claiming the VAMC went beyond regular medical malpractice and was grossly negligent in failing to treat his nerve compression, which could have prevented his paralysis.
Atkinson said the first mediation was ordered by U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten in June 2017. At mediation, the defense argued there was no gross negligence, and that there should have been an offset of the life care plan and economic damages based on the notion that the veteran could continue receiving treatment at the VAMC free of charge.
The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that the defense didn’t properly identify the VA care providers testifying on their behalf as experts. U.S. District Judge Donald Coggins Jr., who took over for Wooten, found that the defense experts’ testimony on violations of the standard of care and on causation should be excluded. The veteran won summary judgment on those issues and the government settled soon thereafter.
Atkinson said that he thinks the settlement has given his client peace of mind.
“He now has the ability to go see specialists at private hospitals,” Atkinson said. “If something comes up outside of [the VA’s] specialties, he can go get those taken care of.”
John Kassel and Theile McVey of Kassel McVey in Columbia served as local counsel in the case.
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SETTLEMENT REPORT – MEDICAL MALPRACTICE
Injuries alleged: Paralysis below the waist
Case name: Withheld
Court: U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina
Judge: Terry Wooten & Donald Coggins Jr.
Mediator: Bill McDow of Richardson Plowden in Columbia
Date of settlement: Oct. 15
Special Damages: $1 million life care plan
Most Helpful Experts: Pain management expert Dr. Don Mills of Irvine, California; Neurologist Dr. Barry Ludwig of Los Angeles; Radiologist Dr. David Owens of Atlanta; Neurosurgeon Dr. Kaveh Khajavi of Atlanta; Hospitalist Dr. Theresa Cuoco of Charleston
Attorneys for plaintiff: John Kassel and Theile McVey of Kassel McVey in Columbia; Lee Atkinson and James Matthews III of Blasingame Burch Garrard Ashley in Athens, Georgia and Erin Bevins of Scottsdale, Arizona
Attorneys for defendant: Barbara Bowens and Marshall Prince of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia