After completing a 5k race in October 2012, Sandra Williams experienced an intense pain in her neck. Barely able to move her head, Williams, then 55, consulted doctors at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus, Georgia. She quickly agreed to undergo a neck operation scheduled just four days after the race. The surgery was deemed a success by the staff at the hospital and she was sent home. But three days later, Williams was rushed to the emergency room at St. Francis. She complained of increased pain in her neck and told the physician’s assistant that she had trouble breathing and swallowing.
According to a medical malpractice lawsuit, filed in the summer of 2014 on behalf of Williams and her husband, the negligence of the St. Francis staff and the attending emergency room physician, Dr. Erik Westerlund, caused her to suffer from brain damage. Court records show that Williams was admitted to the emergency room at 5:30 a.m. on October 20, but was not seen until noon. Not only is six hours a long time for any patient to wait in the emergency room, it also happens to be against the hospital’s policy that stipulates patients should wait no longer than two hours.
Williams’ lawyers argued in court that the delay in being treated caused her to suffer from hematoma, which led to brain trauma that severely impaired her vision and permanently confined her to a wheelchair. After more than three years of litigation the two sides were unable to come to a settlement and the lawsuit was brought to trial in Muskogee County. During the second year of litigation Williams suffered another tragedy when her husband, who is also named as a plaintiff, died of cancer.
“Sandy is now blind,” said one of the attorneys representing Williams. “She’s restricted to a wheelchair, she’s got very little function in her legs, [and] she has a hard time grasping with her hands.”
After hearing testimony from both side over the course of a two-week trial the Georgia jury found in favor of Williams. The jury deliberated for five hours before returning with a verdict that awarded the plaintiff $26 million. The verdict assigned all of the culpability to St. Francis Hospital and Westerlund, who had previously settled out of court for $1 million. The day after the damages were announced, St. Francis agreed to pay $25 million within 30 days and waive their right to appeal in exchange for Williams not seeking any additional money for legal fees.
“Hopefully, [St. Francis] will use this to make changes to their system and what happened to Sandy doesn’t happen to anyone else,” said one of Williams’ lawyers.