Woman's suit against doctors rejected

March 29, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

A Carroll jury has rejected the claims of a Westminster woman who said two local surgeons caused her to develop multiple personalities after they performed a mastectomy on her in 1989.

After deliberating for less than two hours late Monday, the panel of five women and one man found in favor of Dr. Donald D. Coker and Dr. John E. Steers, who had been sued for $1.5 million by Linda Burt, 47, of Westminster.

"This suit was devastating to them," Susan Boyce, the doctors' lawyer, said yesterday. "They gave this woman excellent care. They saved her life. They didn't understand why they were being sued."

Ms. Boyce said that throughout the trial, her clients were deluged with calls from their patients offering support.

According to testimony in the weeklong civil trial, Ms. Burt discovered a lump in her breast in 1989 and several months later was referred to Dr. Steers. He performed a biopsy, found the lump to be cancerous and told Ms. Burt that she should be treated.

Dr. Steers and Dr. Coker performed a mastectomy April 27, 1989. Several days later, an infection formed at the incision where the breast tissue had been removed. Over three days, Dr. Coker prescribed antibiotics and removed several surgical staples in an attempt to drain the infection.

When that didn't work, Dr. Coker decided to perform another procedure to drain fluid and remove infected tissue.

It is that procedure that Ms. Burt pointed to as the direct cause of her seven personalities, depression and "inability to function." Her suit alleged negligence, malpractice and a lack of informed consent on the part of the doctors.

"She firmly believes that the doctors' actions hurt her," said Ms. Burt's attorney, Judith S. Stainbrook. "I don't understand the jury's verdict."

The jury was asked to determine whether each doctor was negligent and caused Ms. Burt's present condition, and whether the doctors failed to obtain her consent for treatment of the post-operation infection.

The jury answered "no" to each question.

In brief closing arguments, Ms. Boyce said her clients provided excellent care to Ms. Burt. She told the jury that the cause of Ms. Burt's suffering runs far deeper than her 1989 mastectomy.

, "She never dealt with her de

mons, and she tried to blame them on these physicians," the lawyer said.

Testimony from both sides revealed that Ms. Burt had been sexually abused as a child, had two failed marriages and had been committed many times to psychiatric hospitals.

"She was basically -- and still is basically -- unable to function," Ms. Stainbrook said.

Ms. Burt has held numerous part-time jobs and was working toward a dream of owning a cleaning business when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ms. Stainbrook said.

Ms. Burt's suit, filed in 1993, sought $1.5 million in damages from the doctors, Carroll County General Hospital and the surgeon who performed a hysterectomy on her in 1987.

The suit was first heard by the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Board, which awarded Ms. Burt $125,000 in damages. The trial was the doctors' appeal of that decision.

The arbitration board exonerated the two other original defendants in the civil action -- the hospital and Dr. Sang J. Lee -- but Ms. Burt appealed that finding. Her claims against them are to be heard before a Carroll jury in September. Ms. Stainbrook said she didn't know whether her client would appeal Monday's verdict.

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