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Jury rejects woman’s malpractice claims

A St. Louis County Circuit Court jury rejected a woman’s medical malpractice claim against two doctors and a hospital for failing to diagnose and treat a post-surgical infection.

Tracy Wilkes-Booker of Florissant had minor surgery in January 2011 on her left foot, which is curled inward so much that the sole does not touch the ground. She saw an emergency room doctor who did not treat her infection and referred her back to her foot doctor who had not responded to her phone calls, her amended petition said. She developed an infection so severe that she developed septic arthritis, which required more surgery, her lawyer Genevieve Nichols said.

The St. Louis County jury returned its verdict June 15 after a six-day trial, the defense team representing the hospital said in a trial summary statement.

The plaintiff was outmanned at trial with her one expert compared to four for the defense, no proof the doctor performing the procedure caused the infection and a county known for juries that favor defendants in medical negligence claims, Nichols said.

“We weren’t surprised,” at the verdict, said Nichols of Coffey & Nichols in St. Louis. “Doctors win upwards of 80 percent” of the time, she said, pointing to data in Missouri Lawyers Weekly Verdicts & Settlements database.

It did not help that Wilkes-Booker’s injured foot is already deformed and that the defense “mentioned it every other minute,” she said.

Wilkes-Booker, 45, works for The Boeing Co. and received a promotion midtrial. She now lives in Seattle, where the company is headquartered.

Wilkes-Booker sought $615,000 for medical costs and pain and suffering from the doctor who did the initial procedure, Dr. Richard Baxter Helfrey, as well as SSM Orthopedic Inc., Christian Hospital Northeast-Northwest and that hospital’s emergency room doctor, Scott Grupas. Defense attorneys Steven Wasserman of Williams Venker & Sanders in St. Louis and Peter F. Spataro of Brown & James in St. Louis said the defendants presented a united defense.

“The evidence showed the diagnosis of the foot infection was timely diagnosed and treated,” Spataro wrote in an email. “We won the case because the standard of care was met by the doctors, not because of the number of defense experts or plaintiff’s club foot condition.”

Wilkes-Booker’s attorneys asked for $520,000 to settle before the trial and the defendants offered $60,000, according to the trial summary provided by Wasserman’s firm.

Christian Hospital said in its answer to the petition if any harm came to Wilkes-Booker, it was not the facility’s fault, or that of its employees. Grupas, a doctor of osteopathy working in their emergency room, did not detect a problem with the surgical site and told Wilkes-Booker to go back to Helfrey.

Grupas should have admitted Wilkes-Booker to the hospital on Jan. 25, 2011, drained her infection site and given her IV antibiotics, the petition alleged.

For his part, Helfrey failed to return Wilkes-Booker’s calls to the office. Nor did he respond to her family’s calls, the petition said.

The lawsuit was not about the surgery in January 2011.

“It was about what happened afterward,” Nichols said. Had either doctor responded properly, her client’s infection “could have been treated with oral antibiotics.”

Defense verdict

Medical malpractice

Venue: St. Louis County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 12SL-CC04799/June 15, 2015

Judge: Colleen Dolan

Plaintiff’s Expert: Dr. William Tettlebach, Salt Lake City, Utah (infectious diseases)

Defendants’ Experts: Dr. Michael Steele, Kansas City (emergency medicine); Dr. William Strecker, St. Louis (orthopedic surgery); Dr. Bret Grebing, Maryville, Illinois (orthopedic surgery); Dr. Fred Zar, Chicago, Illinois (infectious diseases)

Last Pretrial Demand: $520,000

Last Pretrial Offer: $60,000

Insurer: Medicus Insurance Company (for Helfrey and SSM); National Guardian Risk Retention Group Inc. (for Grupas)

Caption: Tracy Wilkes-Booker v. Richard Baxter Helfrey, D.O., SSM Orthopedic Inc., Christian Hospital Northeast-Northwest and Scott Grupas, D.O.

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Mary Coffey and Genevieve Nichols, Coffey & Nichols, St. Louis

Defendants’ Attorneys:  Peter F.  Spataro and Morgan Murphy, Brown & James, St. Louis (for Helfrey and SSM); John F. Mahon Jr. and Steven S. Wasserman, Williams Venker & Sanders, St. Louis (for Christian Hospital); Teri Drew, Hinshaw & Culbertson, St. Louis (for Dr. Grupas)

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