Responsibility for girl's death shared

Because a jury found they bore only part of the responsibility, two doctors found liable Wednesday for the 2002 death of a 16-year-old at Ashland Community Hospital likely will not be held accountable for the entire $740,000 awarded to the girl's estate.

The jury's award to the estate of Sara Joy Burnson will be reduced based on Burnson's own level of fault, as well as her father's, said Linda Eyerman, a Portland attorney who represented Burnson's mother, Katrina Son, of Ashland. Attorneys are preparing for further hearings in the case, Eyerman added.

"We haven't really finished our litigation," she said.

A jury of eight women and four men found that Drs. Paul Rostykus and John Delgado each had a 30 percent responsibility for Burnson's death. Burnson herself caused 25 percent of the tragedy while her father, David Burnson, shouldered 15 percent of the blame, jurors said. The jury deliberated for approximately eight hours on Wednesday following the 12-day civil trial in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Sara Joy Burnson ingested cocaine and the narcotic Propacet before she died on May 12, 2002, in ACH's intensive-care unit. Jurors heard that Propacet caused the fatal irregular heartbeat that Burnson suffered about six hours after arriving at the hospital's emergency room.

The jury found that Rostykus and Delgado failed to know or discover what medications Burnson had ingested and failed to treat the drugs' delayed effects in a timely manner.

The court heard testimony last week that David Burnson brought pill bottles to the hospital that he believed were connected to his daughter's overdose and attempted to deliver them to the appropriate authority.

Rostykus, the ACH emergency-room physician, testified that he had no memory of seeing any pill bottles. If he had, he would have copied the prescriptions into the girl's chart, he told the court. Delgado testified that, although he was very familiar with Propacet, he did not believe the drug had caused Sara Joy Burnson's symptoms when he examined her in the intensive-care unit.

Son was seeking a $2.2 million judgment on behalf of her daughter's estate. She declined to comment following Wednesday's verdict.

Such judgments typically do not affect individual insurance rates for the doctor found at fault, said Jim Dorigan, chief executive officer of Northwest Physicians Mutual, which provides malpractice insurance for about 40 percent of doctors in the state.

"You don't charge one physician for their adverse results," Dorigan said.

The company plans to spend about 80 percent of its yearly premiums in defending and settling claims, Dorigan said. When settlements and awards around the state start to eat into profits, the company raises rates for everyone, he said. Most physicians carry about a $1 million "per occurrence" malpractice policy, he added.

Although Son and David Burnson are both beneficiaries of their daughter's estate, the court will determine how the jury's award is dispersed, Eyerman said. Son brought the case to improve medicine in Ashland, Eyerman said.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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