A six-member jury in Kanawha Circuit Court concluded a week-long trial by issuing an award of $5.8 million to Dominique Adkins, a woman from Bluefield who was a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case. According to her attorney, who applauded the verdict, the award is the largest of its kind in West Virginia in over a decade.
After the surgery, Adkins felt hoarse, tightness in the chest, and had problems breathing and swallowing. Adkins, who was 38 at the time, was exhibiting symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Following the surgery, she suffered paralysis in her vocal chords and required a tracheotomy. The tracheotomy requires her to clean the area multiple times each day and uses a device to maintain her breathing.
The defendant, Dr. Michael Covelli, was found to have been negligent in performing a thyroidectomy in Charleston by damaging her laryngeal nerves, leading to her “severe and debilitating” condition. A defense attorney explained to the Gazette-Mail that they are reviewing their options as it relates to a potential appeal.
Adkins is a graduate of Bluefield State College and says that she has extreme difficulty securing employment because employers view her condition as a potential liability. Unfortunately for Adkins, she will only be eligible to recover a fraction of the award due to the state limitations (caps) on medical malpractice awards. In 2003, the state legislature implemented caps for awards of non-economic damages, which are those damages such as for pain and suffering. The originally established cap was $500,000, which since has been adjusted for inflation to approximately $640,000.
The intent of the legislation was to assist in reducing the volume of cases deemed to be frivolous. The allocation of damages in the jury award included economic damages of roughly $199,000 for medical expenses, $539,000 for lost income, and others. The jury found that Dr. Covelli did not demonstrate the skill or level of care that could have been reasonably expected from a surgeon conducting a similar procedure.
The thyroid is a gland positioned in the neck that is largely responsible for hormonal regulation of the body’s metabolism. Adkins’s first operation, a thyroidectomy, was to remove a part of this gland due to overactivity (hyperthyroidism). Due to the damage inflicted in the botched surgery, a permanent tracheotomy was then required, which involves creating a hold in the neck. This opening allows for placement of a tube into the windpipe (trachea) for the individual to breathe, essentially assuming the duties that normally would be done via the nose and mouth.
Adkins’ attorneys felt that this case serves as an example of where the state-mandated caps on non-economic damage awards result in insufficient compensation for injuries that are permanent in nature.