$1 million settlement reached in 1992 death Deal reached with neurologist

February 18, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A headache that began on Robert and Sandra Brown's fifth-anniversary vacation trip led to her admission to Howard County General Hospital. Two days later, the Ellicott City woman died while waiting for a Columbia neurologist to come to her aid.

Five years and a partial trial later, Robert L. Brown has reached a $1 million settlement with that neurologist, Dr. Johannes Reim. It is one of the largest medical malpractice settlements in recent Howard memory.

Lawyers in the case were bound by an agreement in Howard Circuit Court making the amount of the settlement, reached last month, confidential, but court sources confirmed the amount. The funds represented the maximum amount of Reim's insurance policy, the sources said.

Harry B. Siegel, an attorney with a Columbia firm that handles many personal injury cases, said the settlement was one of the highest in recent memory in the county.

Though other experts said the amount was not unprecedented, especially for a major malpractice suit, Siegel -- who was not involved in the case -- described it as "a very large settlement in Howard County."

He pointed out that the more educated and conservative juries in Howard are known for their low awards in such suits, if they find for the plaintiff.

But this case never made it to the jury. A settlement was reached Jan. 7 after five witnesses had testified in two days.

Stuart M. Salsbury, Brown's attorney, said Sandra, 29, was born with a condition which caused her body to produce excess cerebral spinal fluid. But, with a drain installed years ago to remove the extra fluid, she lived a fairly normal life.

In 1992, the Ellicott City resident had just passed her emergency medical technician (EMT) test and planned a career in that field. In October of that year, she and her husband traveled to the Poconos mountains in Pennsylvania to celebrate their anniversary. But they had to return home after Sandra began having severe headaches and nausea.

Two days after she entered Howard County General's emergency room, Sandra was dead.

Brown's "wife was like his anchor," Salsbury said. "She was his world."

Salsbury said Howard County General employees were not at fault and had tried "desperately" to get help for Sandra Brown. Reim is a member of the neurology practice on Hickory Ridge Road that goes by the name of Dr. Jani and Associates. He also practices at the hospital.

Neither Reim, nor his attorney, W. Scott Sontag, would comment on the case.

The plaintiffs alleged in the case that a recurring blockage caused Sandra's Brown brain to swell with liquid causing extreme pressure that resulted in internal damage -- and ultimately, her death. Reim, the plaintiffs say, should have diagnosed her symptoms as a malfunction of the drain. Instead, Reim performed tests for meningitis, which came back negative.

Later, Sandra Brown's headaches became so severe that, according to nurse's notes, she was crying out in pain and, when asked, described her pain as a "10" on a scale of 1 to 10. Between 9: 20 p.m. and about 11 p.m., Reim was called twice by members of the hospital staff to come and see the woman, Salsbury said.

Reim prescribed a pain killer over the phone and told the nurse that he would be in at 12: 30 a.m., according to the suit.

At just after 1 a.m. the nurse declared Sandra Brown in cardiac arrest. Fifty minutes later, she was dead, the suit alleges. Reim did not arrive until after her death, Salsbury said.

At the trial, Salsbury said the nurse's testimony was critical. Right after she took the witness stand, the case went to settlement.

Salsbury said that Reim's defense centered -- among other things -- on his claim that he was in the emergency room and had told the nurse to call another doctor. But, Salsbury said, hospital records disputed Reim's claims and the nurse testified that Reim never gave her that order.

"She was an extremely caring nurse who really wanted someone to come in and see Mrs. Brown," Salsbury said.

Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland Law School, said that $1 million is a large settlement but hardly unprecedented.

It is not uncommon to settle a case in the middle of trial, Gifford said. Though hours of depositions and months of discovery had been done, attorneys can never fully protect themselves from surprise information or know how their case will be viewed by a jury.

"You don't really know how credible a witness is going to be or how poorly they are going to come across to the jury" until the trial, Gifford said.

But the money means less to Brown than having his wife back, Salsbury said.

"Things were going right for them," Salsbury said. "They took care of each other."

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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