Originally created 03/15/03

Family wins in medical lawsuit



A Richmond County Superior Court jury ruled against Doctors Hospital on Friday and awarded $175,000 to the family of a man who died there after surgery.

"Vindicated," a tearful Sandy Strellner said, describing her feelings after the ruling.Her father, George Erlein, died at the hospital in October 1999.

"Very vindicated," said his widow, Joann. "I'm so glad this is done, and I'm glad it's finally coming out."

Mr. Erlein, 66, died about 10 hours after having surgery on his neck when a large blood clot formed and closed off his airway, both sides agreed. His family said they complained to the staff that he was choking and having a hard time breathing.

Hospital records of regular checks, however, show him as breathing fine until shortly before he died. He was given oxygen during the evening, but the nurse testified that it was to help soothe a sore throat. A defense expert, Atlanta nurse Linda Lane, said she has often given humidified oxygen in those cases. Elwyn G. Beddingfield, representing Mr. Erlein's widow, wasn't buying that.

"You don't prescribe oxygen for a sore throat," Mr. Beddingfield said in closing arguments. "You put a person on oxygen for a breathing problem."

He also said he found it impossible "that a man would slowly strangle to death and never make a complaint that he was having difficulty breathing."

The hospital and its staff could not have known there was a problem until shortly before his death, and did all they could to save Mr. Erlein, said the hospital's attorney, Robert G. Tanner.

"This was not a case of malpractice," he told the jury. "It was a case where people tried very hard and a tragedy occurred. These folks gave good care in a tough situation."

Stan Jackson, also representing Ms. Erlein, questioned why after Mr. Erlein was found red-faced and unable to talk at about 10:45 p.m. that a code wasn't called until 15 minutes later, when he had apparently stopped breathing.

"That delay, that delay was very costly to George Erlein," Mr. Jackson said. He took the responding physician to task for not immediately making an incision and inserting a tube after he found he couldn't pass it through Mr. Erlein's swollen throat.

It was finally done 21 minutes after the code started, "but that was too late," Mr. Jackson said.

The nurse who found Mr. Erlein put him back on his oxygen, as she should have done, and needed time to observe whether it would help, Mr. Tanner said.

No decision has been made on an appeal, said Doctors Hospital spokeswoman Ginger Tyra.

"We disagree and are disappointed with the ruling of this jury," Doctors President/CEO Terry Gunn said in a statement. "Clearly, we do not feel the decision was based on the facts of the case."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.