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Notable Verdicts: Organ transplants gone wrong, botched surgeries, bad priests

Considering the ever-increasing cost and complexity of civil litigation, the ever-expanding use of arbitration to resolve disputes and the notorious unpredictability of juries, you have to wonder: How do any lawsuits ever actually go to trial?

If trend lines continue, the civil jury trial might become little more than a quaint relic one day — or perhaps even the courthouse dodo.

Fortunately — at least, for those practitioners who yearn for the drama of hearing a judge utter the phrase, “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, have you reached a verdict? — that day has not yet arrived.

What were the notable verdicts of 2015? Minnesota Lawyer dug into its archives, called around, and came up with some of the big ones.

Eric Chadwick

Eric Chadwick

$23 million. Contract breach. Eric Chadwick and Aaron Davis of Patterson Theunte.

In 2002, Cardiac Sciences — longtime client of the IP firm Patterson Theunte — discovered that a rival medical device manufacturer, LifeCor, was peddling a defibrillator vest that Cardiac Science believed infringed on its patent. LifeCor disputed the claim but nonetheless signed a cross-licensing agreement providing for a lump-sum fee and $100,000 in minimum annual royalties.

Aaron Davis

Aaron Davis

In 2006, after LifeCor was acquired by another device manufacturer, ZOLL Medical, the payments stopped. Flash forward to 2011.  ZOLL sued Cardiac Sciences in Massachusetts state court, where it sought a declaratory judgement the cross-licensing agreement was excluded from its asset purchase agreement of LifeCor.

A venue dance ensued and, once the legal jousting was done, the case landed in state court in California, with Cardiac Sciences now the plaintiff. After multiple delays, it went to went to trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, where, after a three week trial in May, the jury took just four hours to resolve the long running dispute in favor of Cardiac Sciences.

After speaking with the jurors, Chadwick said he was convinced the case was won on the strength of the documents — and jurors’ willingness to stick to the facts. “The jury system gets criticized a lot and people talk about talk about frivolous trials and big judgments,” Chadwick told Minnesota Lawyer at the time. “We’re in downtown Los Angeles and these jurors were the salt of the earth. They weighed the evidence, they took tons of notes. The jury system is something great about our country.”

Brandon Thompson

Brandon Thompson

$9.1 million. Medical malpractice. Brandon Thompson of Robins Kaplan.

In 2012, Joseph Lakoskey, an auto mechanic from Minneapolis, went into surgery for a perforated bowel and woke up paralyzed. According to Thompson, the cause soon became apparent. Lakoskey was dangerously dehydrated when he was put under sedation, which resulted in a catastrophic drop in blood flow to his spinal cord.

After a nine-day trial and eight hours of deliberations, a Hennepin County jury agreed that the anesthesiologist was to blame. The special verdict awarded Lakoskey $5 million for future pain and suffering, $2.1 million for future medical expenses, $1 million for future earnings, $600,000 for past pain and suffering, $262,000 for past medical expenses, and $175,000 for past earnings.

The $9.1 million dollar total is one of the largest medical malpractice jury verdicts in recent Minnesota history. “I don’t think most people understand how tough these cases are. The insurance companies are winning 90 percent of the time, so they’re less interested in settling,” noted Patrick Stoneking, a fellow Robins attorney who has been friends with Thompson since their law school days at the University of Minnesota.

The defendants have since moved for a new trial.

$8.1 million. Clergy sex abuse. Jeff Anderson, Michael Finnegan and Elin Lindstrom of Jeff Anderson and Associates.

Over three-plus decades, Anderson has notched more than his share of big victories in clergy sex abuse cases but the pioneering attorney didn’t hit a high water mark until last month. Following a two week trial, a Ramsey County jury awarded the plaintiff, William Weiss, $8.1 million for the abuse he suffered as a teen at the hands a since-deceased priest, James Vincent Fitzgerald.

According to BishopAccountability.org, that verdict was the largest ever for a single victim in a clergy abuse case. The jury attributed 40 percent of the fault to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious order based in St. Paul, and 60 percent fault to the Diocese of Duluth. Shortly afterwards, the diocese filed for bankruptcy protection, as well as moving for a new trial.

The case was notable for another reason: It was the first to go to trial under Minnesota’s 2013 Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window to file claims outside the statute of limitations.

$6 million. Sexual assault. Rich Ruohonen and Chuck Slane of TSR Injury Law.

The plaintiff was just 3 years old when he was left unsupervised at a New Horizons day care center at Grand Casino Mille Lacs. For more than 30 minutes, according to Rouhonen, the boy was beaten, choked and sexually assaulted by a disturbed older child, leaving him to struggle with lasting-symptoms of PTSD.

When the case was tried back in January, a jury responded to those appalling claims with an eye-popping award of $13.5 million. Hennepin County Judge Ivy Bernhardson had a different response and, in an unusual move, ordered the parties to a post-verdict mediation.

After the two sides were unable to reach to an accord, the case again went before a jury in November. While Rouhonen was rebuffed in his effort to force Bernhardson to recuse, the end results were still impressive, as the jury awarded the now 11-year-old plaintiff $6 million.

$4.49 million. Railroad injury. Cortney LeNeave of Hunegs, LeNeave & Kvas.

In 2013, Aaron Larson was attempting to separate two train cars at a BNSF railyard in Superior, Wisconsin, when he was struck in the knee by an 80-pound hunk of metal that left him with what LeNeave characterized as “crippling” back and knee injuries. The alleged cause: a defective coupler.

After an eight-day trial, a Hennepin County jury deliberated for under four hours before returning a $4.49 million verdict. The sum is among the largest awarded by a Minnesota jury in a case brought under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act, according to LeNeave.

LeNeave said his client’s injuries were “front and center” at trial but BNSF’s hardball tactics likely contributed to the size verdict. “At the end of the day, the jury was looking at a guy who had gone to battle for our freedoms and who came under attack by his own employer,” LeNeave told Minnesota Lawyer. Last month, Hennepin County Judge Mel Dickstein denied BNSF’s motion seeking a new trial.

$1.2 million. Medical malpractice, wrongful death. Kathleen Loucks of Lommen Abdo and Edward Milstein of Dankner, Milstein & Ruffo (New York, NY)

Kathleen Loucks

Kathleen Loucks

In the spring of 2007, Jodie Shierts, a 36 year-old single mother from Pequot Lakes who suffered from  advanced diabetes, underwent a pancreas transplant at the University of Minnesota. Less than half year later, Shierts was dead from a rare form of cancer, T-cell lymphoma. Subsequent investigations revealed that was the same disease that killed the organ donor, a Long Island boy who was originally believed to have died of either bacterial or viral meningitis.

The ensuing wrongful death lawsuit was dismissed by the district court on the grounds that the presence of lymphoma in the transplanted organ was not, as a matter of law, a foreseeable event. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed and remanded.

After a four-and-a-half day trial, a Hennepin County jury returned its verdict, awarding the woman’s heirs $1.2 million. “It was a fairly convoluted case in terms of the medicine but we were able to make it less complex for the jury,” said Loucks. “The only question the jury had to answer was, ‘Were they negligent in accepting the pancreas for transplant?’”

Damages were limited to loss of companionship because there was no claim on future earnings,  Loucks said. A post-verdict settlement shaved off some of the award but, according to Loucks, the total still exceeded $1 million. She said her co-counsel has settled several other cases in which the plaintiffs received cancerous organs from the same donor.

$ 1.5 million, $1.4 million. Railroad injuries, Paula Jossart of Jossart Law Office

The veteran personal injury lawyer took two railroad employee injury cases to trial in 2015, securing verdicts from juries in Hennepin County this year that totaled just under $3 million.

In February, Daniel Brewer – a locomotive engineer from Sioux City, Iowa — was awarded $1.5 million for cumulative trauma spinal injuries. In June, Jossart secured a $1.4 million verdict for Mark Perman of Aberdeen, S.D., a BNSF employee who claimed injury caused by a defective equipment.

“We would have settled both cases for less than the verdict. But the railroad didn’t want to settle, so we went to battle and had some good successes,” said Jossart. Post-verdict settlements have since been finalized.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Jeff Anderson in a photo.

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