Survivors sue over liver their loved one didn't get Jury here weighs malpractice case

December 04, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Hugh Eric Wilson died at Pittsburgh's Presbyterian University Hospital before he could receive a liver transplant that might have saved his life. He was 32 and he left a wife and two daughters.

Seven years later, a Baltimore jury is being asked to decide whether the hospital, a leader in transplant surgery, contributed to the Baltimore man's death by missing chances to transplant a liver because his health insurance wasn't in line.

The outcome of the multimillion-dollar medical-malpractice suit may hinge on the letters and testimony of another big name in medical circles, Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, a pioneer in liver transplantation most recently in the news for directing operations in which baboon and pig livers were transplanted into human patients.

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury is to convene this morning to consider its verdict in the three-week trial.

Mr. Wilson was working as an electrician and living in Baltimore when a November 1984 checkup showed his liver was not functioning properly. Doctors with Chesapeake Health Plan, a Baltimore health-maintenance organization, said he would die without a transplant.

Mr. Wilson and his wife traveled to Pittsburgh, hoping he would receive a transplant, but his insurance would not cover the operation. Joyce Wilson said she returned to Baltimore and raised money for surgery. When she went back to Pittsburgh -- 11 days after they first arrived there -- her husband was in a coma. He died the next morning.

"I couldn't believe he was dead," Mrs. Wilson testified last week. "I was basically waiting for his chest to move. I just looked at him for a while."

Lawyers for Mr. Wilson's wife and two daughters say hospital officials cared more about getting paid than they did about saving his life. One of her lawyers, John S. Singleton, told the jury, "What they did was they locked their doors on this guy, saying you can't come in because you don't have the price of admission."

Nonsense, said lawyers for the hospital. They said no one is turned away because they can't pay. Those lawyers said the Pittsburgh doctors did what they could, but the Baltimore

doctors had waited too long to refer the ailing man for a possible transplant.

Said the hospital's lawyer, George M. Church, "We're the only entity in this whole case that tried to do something for Mr. Wilson and what did we get? We got sued."

The plaintiffs' case revolves around a letter written by Dr. Starzl, who performed the world's first human liver transplant in 1963.

Shortly after Mr. Wilson died, Dr. Starzl wrote a letter to the president of the Chesapeake Health Plan saying that two livers matching the patient's B blood type had become available while Mr. Wilson was in Pittsburgh but were refused because insurance problems had not been worked out.

"I believe that an injustice was committed in the Wilson case and that the sooner we recognize this, the more certain we can be that some future patient in desperate straits will not die as a result of this kind of studied neglect," the surgeon wrote.

Mr. Church said the letter was intended to gain attention about problems posed when health insurance companies deny coverage. He pointed to expert testimony that Mr. Wilson was not a suitable transplant candidate.

Daniel F. Goldstein, another lawyer for the Wilsons, wrapped up his closing argument: "No matter what your verdict, whether you find for the Wilsons or for the hospital, if you render a verdict from your heart, Eric Wilson, after seven long years, can finally rest in peace."

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