Christus settles before appeal of $1.5 M verdict is heard

David Yates Oct. 30, 2008, 6:36am

Last month, the Record reported that on Oct. 30 the Texas' Ninth Court of Appeals was to hear oral arguments from Christus Health lawyers as to why the court should nullify a $1.5 million verdict levied against the hospital last September.

However, before Beaumont justices could hear oral arguments, the parties in the case settled Wednesday night, said court staff.

Court personnel could not say if Christus settled for less than the $1.5 million jurors awarded on Sept. 11, 2007, in the wrongful death trial of Irene Salas et al vs. Christus Health.

Irene and her children sued Christus in 2001, claiming the hospital negligently allowed their benefactor, Aurilano Salas, to die from a preventable heart attack.

During the trial, the Salas' attorney, David Matthews, told jurors that "the Salas family is not here to make millions (of dollars) but to make sure this never happens again," adding that he himself, however, would "reasonably compensate" the Salases with a $10 million verdict.

Aurilano Salas, a dump-truck driver, had no spleen and suffered from an array of life threatening aliments. When he became ill on the job in 2001, Salas was transported to Christus Hospital St. Mary in Port Arthur and diagnosed with sepsis (infection). Eight hours after his arrival, Salas died.

Salas's family and their lawyers contended that he died of a preventable heart attack while in Christus's care, and they effectively spent seven days in Judge Donald Floyd's 172nd District Court convincing jurors that the hospital and its medical staff misdiagnosed him. The jury awarded the family $1.5 million.

On Jan. 17, four months following the judgment, Christus filed a notice of appeal, petitioning local justices to nullify the million dollar verdict. Oral arguments were slated for Oct. 9, but were rescheduled to Oct. 30 due to Hurricane Ike.

During the 2007 trial, the plaintiffs' key evidence was an autopsy revealing a freshly clogged artery in Aurilano's heart and testimony from Aurilano's son Rudy saying he observed his father grasping his chest and jaw.

Matthews argued the autopsy is proof Salas was misdiagnosed.

Defense attorney Curry Cooksey casted doubt on the accuracy of the autopsy findings by arguing the autopsy, performed by Dr. Tommy Brown, was "result oriented," not very technical and failed to account for Salas' previous heart condition and blocked arteries.

"Brown's autopsy defied the laws of physics…God's laws," Cooksey said in his closing remarks.

But the Salas family maintained that they warned hospital staff that Aurilano Salas suffered from a heart condition and was taking Plavix. They claim attending physicians and nurses ignored their admonitions.

"Despite being informed by Rudy Salas that his father had a heart condition… blocked arteries and of the name of his father's cardiologist in Lubbock, Dr. Michael Peterson diagnosed Aurilano with a respiratory infection," the lawsuit's petition said.

Cooksey brought Rudy Salas's deposition to jurors' attention, in which the son testified that his father was feeling better, walking around and asking if he could be sent home.

When testifying in court, Rudy Salas contradicted that deposition. He said his father was bedridden, clutching his chest and breathing irregularly during his time in the emergency room.

There was no evidence in the medical records that Aurilano Salas told nurses or his attending physician that he was suffering from chest pains.

In fact, Cooksey argued Salas had a history of not seeking medical attention when he was ill, saying Salas at one time waited several months before consulting a doctor after noticing blood in his urine.

Salas, 65, was overweight, had a past history of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke and hyper tension. He also had no spleen and was highly susceptible to infection.

The Salas family was represented by Houston attorney David Matthews and the Law Offices of Gilbert T. Adams.

Cooksey is an attorney for the Orgain Bell & Tucker law firm in Beaumont.

Appeals case No. 09-08-00027-CV
Trial case No. E170-948

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