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May 30 2007 - Appeals court upholds $530,000 malpractice award against UMC

The state Court of Appeals has upheld a $534,025 medical malpractice award against the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which had been accused by the family of Brenda Easter of failing to diagnose a case of pneumonia that led to her death.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green in 2005 ruled for Gloria Johnson, Easter’s sister, who sued the hospital.

In its appeal, UMC argued the judge allowed hearsay evidence and disregarded testimony favorable to the hospital.

According to the court record, Easter entered UMC in Jackson on Aug. 17, 1999, for a Caesarean section. Easter gave birth to a healthy daughter but began to have difficulty breathing and suffered from elevated blood pressure.

Testimony at the trial was that Easter told a woman with whom she was sharing a room that she felt like she was drowning when she laid down.

Easter left the hospital on Aug. 20 and returned to her Leake County home. She died Aug. 22, 1999, at Leake County Hospital after experiencing trouble breathing. An autopsy showed she suffered from bronchopneumonia.

On appeal, UMC attacked the testimony of Sandra Russell, Easter’s roommate at the hospital. UMC said Russell was being treated with pain medication while she shared a room with Easter and offered contradictory statements about Easter’s condition, which were not supported by Easter’s medical records.

UMC also contended that Russell’s testimony about Easter’s breathing problems was inadmissible hearsay.

Appeals Judge Tyree Irving, writing Tuesday for the court, said the issue of UMC’s negligence did not hinge on the testimony of Russell. He said negligence could only be shown by the testimony of medical experts and on that basis Russell’s testimony was irrelevant.

Irving said Russell’s testimony was not hearsay, because she was testifying about what Easter told her.

Irving also rejected UMC’s argument that the trial judge erred in finding that Easter developed bronchopneumonia before her release from UMC. The hospital said there was no expert testimony to support that finding and Easter could have developed it after her discharge because she died 36 hours after her release.

Irving said a medical expert testified that the pneumonia was preexisting and it would have shown up on an X-ray.

UMC said the trial judge ignored the testimony of its experts, who provided another explanation for the cause of Easter’s symptoms. Irving said the court record showed the judge gave consideration to both sides.

“A trial court commits no error in finding one expert more persuasive than another ... the trial court, sitting as the trier of fact, is the sole judge of the credibility of all witnesses, including experts,” Irving said.

“This is the classic case of the battle of the experts, with Johnson’s experts contending that Easter had symptoms of pneumonia which were ignored by UMC, while UMC’s experts contend that Easter showed no signs of pneumonia while at UMC,” he said.
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