During the last minutes of the wrongful death trial of Irene Salas et al vs. Christus Health Southeast Texas, plaintiff's lawyer 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.
The Salas family will only receive 15 percent of Matthew's suggested $10 million, as jurors handed down a $1.5 million verdict in favor of the plaintiffs Tuesday, Sept. 11. The Salas family filed the lawsuit against Christus in 2001, claiming a misdiagnosis lead to the death of Aurilano Salas.
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' family and its lawyers contended that he died of a preventable heart attack while in Christus' care, and they effectively spent the past seven days in Judge Donald Floyd's 172nd District Court convincing jurors that the hospital and its medical staff misdiagnosed their benefactor.
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, were the plaintiffs' key evidence.
Matthews argued the autopsy is proof Salas was misdiagnosed.
But defense attorney Curry Cooksey cast doubt on the accuracy of the autopsy findings. He argued 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' 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.
Aurilano 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.
According to the plaintiffs' original petition, on Aug. 6, 2001, Aurilano Salas was in Port Arthur driving a dump truck, helping his son Rudy at a work site when he began to experience weakness, nausea, vomiting and pain radiating from his jaw to his left arm and through his back. He was transported to St. Mary Hospital and attended to by defendants Dr. Peterson, Dr. Ghyath Samman and nurse Maryann Guillory.
The lawsuit, filed with the Jefferson County District Court on Aug. 29, 2003, stated Christus physicians diagnosed Salas with a respiratory infection and prescribed Tylenol for his fever and antibiotics for his sepsis.
In his opening remarks, Matthews said Christus nurses should have listened to the Salas family's complaints, hooked Salas up to a heart monitor and checked his blood pressure on a regular basis.
"Whether he had sepsis or not, (Salas) had all the tell-tale signs of a heart condition," Matthews said. "It was not his time…(Salas) had many years left to live."
Conversely, attorney Cooksey said in his opening remarks that Dr. Peterson took all the right steps and performed a cardiac test on Salas which came back negative. "(Salas) died from sepsis - there is not doubt about it."
Cooksey further argued that, in his view, Dr. Peterson, who is not a Christus employee, did no wrong, and Christus nurses should never be held accountable for following a doctor's orders.
"It was a reasonable diagnosis…and the nurses were not negligent for (treating him for sepsis)," he said. "Do you want to tell these nurses they should follow doctors' orders at their own peril? I sure don't want to see that."
Medical records indicated Salas' white-blood cell count was well bellow normal, clear signs his immune system was exhausted from fighting infection, Cooksey said. "His body had been fighting this infection for a while, and he was losing it. This man died of an infection that (physicians) couldn't fix."
The plaintiffs charged the defendants with negligence and gross negligence, and alleged that if Christus' medical staff had provided Salas with an ordinary standard of care, he would still be alive today.
Salas' wife Esmeralda Salas was awarded $343,000 for past and future pecuniary loss, $100,000 for past loss of companionship and $125,000 for past mental anguish damages.
Salas' children were awarded $550,000 for past loss of companion ship and mental anguish.
Aurilano Salas' estate was awarded $10,000 for medical expenses, $10,000 for funeral expenses and $500,000 for pain and mental anguish.
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.
Case No. E170-948