A jury has found sufficient evidence of neglect in the care of a woman in a nursing home who died from a bedsore, awarding her surviving family $4.25 million after an 11-day trial in Liberty County State Court. The award was announced May 23 before State Court Judge Jeffrey Osteen.
Liberty Regional Medical Center spokesperson Renee Harwell said the hospital and the hospital authority had no comment on the jury’s decision.
The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by Patricia Edwards’ daughter, Rebecca Edwards Smith, claimed LRMC, doing business as Coastal Manor, and doctors Calin G. Badea and Adewunmi Sobowale were negligent in the treatment and medical documentation of a sacral pressure ulcer, or bedsore, that was first noticed on Edwards by a Coastal Manor nurse and documented in her files on Dec. 9, 2018.
Court records indicate Edwards, the wife of former longtime Liberty County Schools Superintendent Ed Edwards, had been under the care of Sobowale since 2016, when she was admitted to Coastal Manor after a fall at her home and a brief hospitalization period in Savannah.
Sobowale was her attending physician until January 2019, when he went out of the country for a month, and Edwards was placed in the care of Badea.
Smith’s lawsuit claimed Sobowale never informed Badea about the ulcer and that no instructions regarding Edwards’ care were given to Badea by Sobowale before he left the country.
Attorneys Jeff Arnold and Craig Stafford, of Arnold and Stafford Attorneys of Law in Hinesville, represented the Edwards family. They said Badea was equally negligent for not checking or treating the ulcer, despite weekly notes by the nursing staff indicating the ulcer was growing and getting worse.
By Feb. 19, 2019, Edwards had to be taken by ambulance to LRMC. The suit states that during this entire 72-day period, neither Badea or Sobowale checked on or treated the ulcer.
At the hospital Edwards underwent surgery, and the surgeon reported the ulcer had reached Stage 4 and had caused an infection called osteomyelitis, which made Edwards’ death “clearly imminent.”
Edwards was placed in hospice care at her home on March 1, 2019, and died April 7.
“This should never have happened,” Arnold said. “Going to a nursing home like this is not a last act or a death sentence. … The Edwards family sent her there with the trust, hope and belief that after a period of rehabilitation — she was having mobility problems — that she would return home. That was their belief. They didn’t send her in there to die.”
Arnold said the family were actively involved in her rehabilitation, with frequent visits, and in her treatment and care.
“The records are replete; the record from the testimonies of the nurses were replete, and the doctors did not deny it — Rebecca and her siblings were devoted children,” Arnold said.
Stafford and Arnold called four expert witnesses. First was Dr. Amy Garcia, a primary care physician specializing in wound care from the VA hospital in Houston, Texas.
“She is on the national pressure injury advisory panel,” Stafford said, adding that they set the standards on how pressure ulcers should be treated.
They then brought in Dr. David Seignious, an internal medicine and nursing home doctor from Charleston, S.C.
Dr. Winston Gandy, an internal medicine physician and cardiologist from Atlanta, testified how good Edwards’ health was prior to the ulcer and subsequent infection.
“Her heart was good. Her lungs were good,” Stafford said. “She did have some dementia, but she was going to live a good bit longer.”
Edwards was 83 when she died.
Dr. Ronald Kline, a vascular surgeon from Arizona, explained how surgeons could have gone in during earlier stages of the ulcer to correctly treat it and prevent it from progressing.
Arnold said Sobowale, when given the opportunity to testify on his own behalf, chose not to return to the stand.
“Unlike criminal cases, where you can’t comment on the silence of the accused, in a civil case, you can definitely comment on the silence,” Arnold said. “He had the opportunity to explain himself, defend himself and offer some form of explanation for his apparent untruthfulness with the jury.”
They said the hospital, nursing home and nurses reached a consent judgement in the case, accepting blame, but the two doctors opted for a trial, denying they had done anything wrong.
The attorneys were able to argue that it takes a team approach in caring for patients in a nursing home setting, and the jury’s verdict was in favor of the plaintiff. The hospital/ nursing home will be responsible for 60 percent of the award. Sobowale is responsible for 35 percent, and Badea is responsible for 5 percent.
“We were very fortunate to have a client, a family of four siblings, who had the confidence in Craig and I to pursue the case,” Arnold said. “These are cases that are very expensive to pursue because the doctors are sometimes adamant in their defense and their contention that they did nothing wrong. We were able to sustain their faith and support, which was vindicated in the end.
“More importantly, I believe, as spoken by Rebecca Edwards (Smith), the care and treatment that patients will receive henceforth in that nursing home will hopefully improve greatly because of the contributions the Edwards family made in pursuing the claim against both the hospital (and) the nurses and the doctors’ demonstration they were not following the standard of care.”
Valdosta attorneys Gregory T. Talley and A.A. “Beau” Howell IV of Coleman Talley represented Sobowale, while Savannah lawyers Gregory Hodges, William J. Hunter and R. Benjamin Lingle of Oliver Maner represented Badea.
“These are top-notch firms,” Stafford said. “They both vigorously defended this case, and they were tough adversaries.”
Arnold and Stafford also credited Judge Osteen for running a tough, yet fair, trial.
“His judicial temperament and the manner in which he conducted the trial was exemplary,” Arnold said.