Originally created 05/08/00

Doctor cleared in former Celtics star's death

BOSTON -- A cardiologist was cleared of malpractice Monday in the case of Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis, who dropped dead shooting baskets in 1993 two months after the doctor said Lewis had a "normal athlete's heart."

A jury rejected a lawsuit brought by Lewis' family against Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who had suggested that cocaine use by Lewis hindered his ability to diagnose the 27-year-old player's condition.

A previous trial ended in a hung jury. The verdict this time came after a little more than three days of deliberations.

After being informed that the 16 jurors couldn't muster the 13 votes required to avoid a deadlock, both sides agreed to accept a verdict based on 12 votes. Moments later, the jury decided Mudge did not provide Lewis with substandard care.

Lewis first collapsed during an NBA playoff game in 1993. After a "dream team" of doctors diagnosed him with a potentially fatal heart problem, he walked out of the hospital and transferred care to Mudge.

The distinguished cardiologist said at a news conference at the time that Lewis had a "normal athlete's heart" and that he suffered from a benign fainting disorder. Two months later, Lewis died during practice.

The autopsy and death certificate said Lewis' heart was enlarged and extensively scarred from a viral infection that left him vulnerable to the abnormal heart rhythm that killed him. Other doctors have said the scarring could also have been caused by cocaine.

The Lewis family sued for the basketball star's lost earnings, an amount that was put as high as $75 million during the first trial but was not specified during the second.

The first trial ended last year when the jury deadlocked over Mudge's culpability; two consultants were exonerated and a fourth doctor settled out of court.

The first trial was dominated by allegations of cocaine use. At the retrial, Mudge testified that Lewis had admitted using cocaine. But Judge Thayer Fremont-Smith instructed the jury to disregard any testimony about drug use, saying there was no evidence it contributed to Lewis' death.

Neil Rossman, the lawyer for Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, said the one victory for the plaintiffs was that the player's reputation was not tainted again.

"We got cocaine out of the case once and for all," Rossman said.

The two sides agreed last week that Mudge and Harris-Lewis would not be in the courtroom when the verdict was read. After the jury was dismissed, the lawyers called their clients.

"She's very disappointed, but obviously it's time to move on," Rossman said. "She needs to compose herself and deal with what has happened here. She'll never get over the loss of her husband, and the children will never get over the loss of their father. But she's had the opportunity to have this question answered by a jury of her peers."

Mudge and his wife said in a statement that they felt no ill will toward Lewis' widow.

"We wish them peace and comfort as we all move along from this place," they said.

Mudge contended even though he said publicly Lewis could eventually resume his NBA career, he had not ruled out a heart problem. He also cautioned Lewis to take his medication and not exert himself -- instructions Mudge said his patient ignored.

The Celtics had no comment. The jurors also had no comment, according to a court clerk.

The jury was asked to decide whether Mudge was negligent and, if so, whether that caused the player's death. In Massachusetts, a civil case usually requires a five-sixths vote, which would be 14 jurors on a 16-member panel, but it can be as low as a simple majority if the parties agree.

"I think everybody wanted to have this case resolved," Rossman said. "We took our chances."


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