In August 2018, a New Mexico jury awarded a record $73 million medical malpractice verdict to a family impacted by a birth injury. The award, which apparently remains the highest jury determination for a medical malpractice case in the state’s history, followed an eight-day trial in Santa Fe County District Court.
According to plaintiffs Lorenza and Alvaro Botello, Lorenza had several pre-existing medical conditions necessitating close medical monitoring when she became pregnant in 2012. At 36 years old and with a diabetes diagnosis, she reportedly should have been considered high-risk for birth complications and undergone additional ultrasounds and testing to ensure her health and that of her unborn baby. However, Lorenza Botello’s ob-gyn Dr. Jerry McLaughlin and his employer Pecos Valley of New Mexico, LLC allegedly failed to conduct the necessary additional diagnostics at any point of her prenatal care.
The alleged negligence on the part of McLaughlin and Pecos Valley of New Mexico, LLC during Botello’s pregnancy purportedly led to disastrous complications when her son Jonathan was born in March 2013 at Pecos Valley Medical Center. McLaughlin supposedly failed to anticipate the possibility that Botello’s baby would have a high birth weight, a well-documented risk of diabetes during pregnancy. The baby did indeed weigh 11.5 pounds at birth, significantly higher than McLaughlin’s estimate of eight pounds. Botello attempted a vaginal delivery, but the baby’s shoulders lodged behind her pelvis, an event known as shoulder dystocia. It reportedly took more than ten minutes for McLaughlin to dislodge him from the birth canal with a vacuum-extraction device, depriving the baby of adequate oxygen intake. Botello was also apparently left with severe rectal and vaginal wounds due to the traumatic delivery.
In March 2016, the plaintiffs and their attorney Kent Buckingham of Buckingham Barrera Vega Law Firm, filed a medical malpractice claim against McLaughlin, Pecos Valley of New Mexico, LLC, a delivery room nurse, and Community Health Systems Professional Services Corp. (CHSPSC), the operator of Pecos Valley Medical Center, LLC. As contended by the lawsuit, the defendants deviated from proper standards of care by failing to monitor Botello as a high-risk patient throughout her pregnancy. They also allegedly committed negligence during Jonathan’s birth by proceeding with a vaginal delivery when a cesarean section was the medically appropriate option due to his high birth weight.
The resulting damages, as outlined in the lawsuit, are significant. They include severe and permanent impairment to Jonathan’s brain due to extended oxygen deprivation during delivery, as well as nerve damage to the right arm, known as a brachial plexus injury. Lorenza Botella also requested compensation for lingering physical and emotional trauma from the birth.
Leading up to trial, the delivery room nurse and CHSPSC were dismissed from the claim, and McLaughlin died, leaving Pecos Valley of New Mexico, LLC as the sole defendant before the jury. The plaintiffs’ attorneys presented several expert witnesses who testified that the defendants violated a series of medical protocols before and after the delivery that directly contributed to Lorenza and Jonathan Botellos’ injuries. Specifically, they contended that the defendants failed to appropriately monitor Lorenza as a high-risk patient during her pregnancy and that a cesarean section should have been the default mode of delivery due to the baby’s atypically elevated birth weight.
The opposing counsel’s argument hinged on the assertion that Jonathan did not sustain any significant physical injuries. However, in an unusual turn of events, their own expert witnesses conceded that the actions of the defendants were “indefensible.” Defense attorneys subsequently admitted liability on behalf of Pecos Valley of New Mexico, LLC during closing arguments and requested that jurors affirm such on the verdict sheet.
Following the eight-day trial and a six-hour deliberation, the jury did indeed side with the plaintiffs. Their award included a total of $33.1 million in compensatory damages intended to cover medical expenses, lost wages, and other costs resulting from injuries to Lorenza and Jonathan Botello. The verdict also contained $40 million in punitive exemplary damages, which is additional compensation a defendant must pay as punishment for negligence or harmful actions. Although New Mexico has a medical malpractice damage cap of $600,000 for qualified healthcare providers, the plaintiffs’ attorney Kent Buckingham noted at the time of the verdict that it didn’t apply to the Pecos Valley of New Mexico clinic.
In a statement following the verdict, Buckingham praised the “pointed, astute” questions raised by the jury during trial. He went on to remark that “it was obvious they understood and grasped the medicine” at the center of the case, and that their record-breaking verdict would allow “Jonathan’s needs to be addressed, [so] he can live with dignity.”