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David Marsh: Jury awards $30M in malpractice suit against surgeon, DCH

Tuscaloosa News by Stephanie Tayor, May 16, 2019

A Tuscaloosa County jury has awarded what could be a record $30 million verdict to the family of a murder victim who waited hours to see a surgeon at DCH Regional Medical Center.

The family of homicide victim Johnny Sledge won the medical malpractice suit against DCH Healthcare Authority and other health care providers after a trial before Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court Judge James Roberts that began May 6.

Sledge, 24, was shot when a gunfight broke out near Ash Street in west Tuscaloosa on Dec. 27, 2013. He was rushed to the hospital, but wasn’t seen by on-call surgeon Dr. Bradley Bilton, who was performing an elective surgery at the time.

Family members filed the civil lawsuit the following year, represented by attorneys David Marsh, Derrick Mills and Jane Mauzy of Birmingham firm Marsh Rickard & Bryan along with Tuscaloosa attorney Paul Patterson of Patterson Comer Law Firm.

“Mr. Sledge was victimized twice,” Mills said. “First, he was an innocent bystander struck by a stray bullet. Then, he was left to die in an emergency room because the general surgeon who was at the hospital and called to provide the life-saving surgery he needed, never showed up.”

Sledge died two hours after paramedics took him to the emergency room at DCH. Attorneys for his family said his wounds required immediate surgical intervention to address his internal injuries from the gunshot wound to his back. He was treated by the emergency room physician but was never evaluated by a surgeon.

“This is a victory for the Sledge family,” Mills said. “They’ve been in this for five years. They’re strong, and they’re tough. We’re thankful we were able to tell their story and that 12 folks from Tuscaloosa County understood the importance of this case and delivered justice.”

The verdict is against Bilton, his practice group University Surgical Associates, P.C., Dr. George Nunn, DCH’s director of trauma services, and DCH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kenneth Aldridge.

“Because litigation in this case may continue, DCH has no comment other than that we offer our condolences to the family of Mr. Sledge,” DCH spokesman Brad Fisher said Thursday.

Attorneys said Sledge died as a result of numerous errors and negligence in hospital policies and procedures for trauma calls. DCH policies allowed the on-call trauma surgeon to schedule elective procedures during on-call days, creating a situation where the surgeon was unavailable. Policy required the unavailable on-call surgeon to locate another surgeon to fill in, which wasn’t followed in Sledge’s case.

Emergency responders called in a trauma alert to the emergency department as they transported Sledge to the hospital at 2:15 p.m. that day. He was alert at the time. When paged to respond to the ER, Bilton responded that he was in surgery and to “call someone else,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.

DCH staff made calls, but couldn’t locate an available surgeon. Bilton was paged a second time but responded to “find a different surgeon.”

The physicians felt that an emergency abdominal surgery was needed to treat Sledge’s injuries, the attorneys said. At 4 p.m., emergency room staff paged Bilton a third time. The doctor responded that Sledge should be transferred to UAB Hospital in Birmingham.

The suit claimed negligence by DCH for failing to comply with hospital rules and the surgery-on-call physicians’ schedule, as well as not having a backup plan in place for occasions when an on-call doctor was unavailable.

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