A jury Wednesday awarded $425,000 to the parents of a young woman who died in the dental chair of Dr. Tony Protopappas, the Orange County dentist who was convicted of murder in 1984 for that death and two others.
After the verdict, several jurors embraced a tearful Ulla Isaksen, the mother of the dead woman, Kim Andreasson.
"I am so exhausted from this trial, and on the other hand I'm so elated," Isaksen said later. "I've never experienced this before. My body says sleep, my mind says no."
'A Joyous Thing'
The meeting after the verdict "was a joyous thing," said Neil Bahan, lawyer for Ulla and Per Isaksen. "They hugged and they kissed. They apologized to Ulla for taking so long and wished her well," Bahan said.
The jurors deliberated less than one day in the trial, which began May 28 before Orange County Superior Court Judge John L. Flynn Jr.
"It was emotional," said one juror, who asked not to be identified. "Here's this woman who's been going through this for four years. And finally, here's the end of it."
Protopappas was convicted in a celebrated criminal case of second-degree murder in the deaths of three patients who came to his clinic for routine treatment. But most of the jurors in the civil wrongful-death lawsuit were unaware until after they returned the verdict Wednesday that Protopappas was in prison or had been convicted.
The dentist's convictions cannot legally be used as evidence in other cases until they are final, which cannot happen until he exhausts all legal appeals.
'Filled in Empty Spaces'
"We didn't find that (the conviction) out until after the verdict," said one juror. "It filled in the empty spaces like, 'Why wasn't Protopappas here?' and 'Where is he?' "
There was no disagreement among jurors that Protopappas was negligent in treating Kim Andreasson and little discussion over the amount of damages, the juror said. The jurors awarded her mother $250,000 for her pain and suffering and $175,000 to Per Isaksen, her stepfather. "We didn't consider it excessive by any means," the juror said.
Jurors also did not know that Protopappas' only known assets are a $500,000 medical malpractice insurance policy from Glacier Insurance Co. At least 14 other persons have filed claims for damages stemming from Protopappas' alleged negligence in his dental practice, two of the cases for wrongful death.
At the time of her dental surgery in 1982, Miss Andreasson, 23, was suffering from lupus, chronic kidney failure, a seizure disorder, anemia and high blood pressure.
The central question in the civil trial, as in the criminal trial two years ago, was whether Protopappas properly administered anesthetics during the 2 1/2 hours of root canal surgery he performed on the woman.
Bahan and co-counsel Alton J. Smith argued that she had died from a lethal combination of powerful anesthetic drugs administered by Protopappas.
Defense attorney Hollis O. Dyer, who was not present when the verdict was returned, argued that her delicate health caused the death.
"The anesthetic drugs (Protopappas administered) are complicated in themselves," Bahan told jurors. "They are very complicated when given to someone in Kim's condition. They are unbelievably complicated when mixed together."
Because of Protopappas' negligence, the Isaksens "lost a dear loved one who was the anchor of their life," Bahan told jurors.
Dyer contended that tests conducted on Miss Andreasson immediately after she was brought to a hospital emergency room from Protopappas' office showed that her blood contained a level of potassium "incompatible with life itself"--a condition he said is a risk that all persons with kidney problems run.
Protopappas' insurer, Glacier, claimed in a separate lawsuit that it has no obligation to pay because the dentist failed to pay required deductibles.
'Never Offered a Cent'
"The primary thrust for trying this case was making the insurance company act," said Bahan. "We just tried this whole case, and the insurance company never offered a cent.
"The insurance company stonewalled to the bitter end," he added.
Ulla Isaksen said she has been "torn up" about having to relive her daughter's death.
"It seems like you never can leave it alone. I could never forget what happened, how can I? This just softens it," she said.
Dyer has suggested that the maximum damages may be $250,000 under a state law limiting recovery for non-economic injury in medical malpractice cases. The question of whether the limits apply to the Isaksens jointly or separately may be argued later this week.