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Supervisors OK $5-Million Award to Paraplegic Girl

February 05, 1999|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Board of Supervisors has quietly decided to award $5 million to a girl who was born paraplegic as the consequence of malpractice committed in a county health clinic.

A jury already has awarded the girl $7.1 million and the supervisors voted to accept the settlement rather than pursue an appeal, which, if unsuccessful, would have left the higher judgment intact with the county liable for accrued interest as well.

The case is noteworthy not only for the settlement's size, but also for the fact that the board agreed to settle the lawsuit Tuesday night, but did not announce its action until Thursday afternoon, an apparent violation of the state's open records law.

The executive officer of the board, Joanne Sturges, admitted Thursday that she neglected to announce the settlement after the board approved it in closed session Tuesday night.

Because the executive session ended so late, board offices engaged in a procedural maneuver to officially adjourn the meeting Wednesday while supervisors were in Sacramento meeting with local legislators. But the state's open records law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, requires announcements of settlements to occur "at the public meeting during which the closed session was held."

The settlement instead was announced in an unsigned single-page memo distributed to press offices late Thursday.

"It was purely my mistake," Sturges said.

A spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he was startled that the settlement was not announced promptly. "Our intention always is to comply fully and promptly with no hedging with all the provisions of the Brown Act," Joel Bellman said, "and the executive officer is responsible for complying with that requirement."

The settlement follows a tangled 50-month legal case involving at least five lawsuits.

The initial lawsuit, filed by Jocelyn Panduro, now 6, and her parents, Rosa and Martin--an assistant manager at a textile factory--alleged that a variety of errors by county employees caused Jocelyn to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

A jury in 1997 found that neither Santa Marta hospital, where Jocelyn was born, nor the anesthesiologist attending the mother was liable for the damages.

Instead, the bulk of the judgment fell on the county because the jury concluded that the county's Edward Roybal clinic in East Los Angeles botched Rosa Panduro's prenatal care.

A nurse at the clinic examined the mother in her 32nd week of pregnancy and found that the baby was in a breech position--meaning she would emerge from the womb feet first, leading to a complex and risky delivery.

But attorneys say that the nurse never consulted a doctor and, in a subsequent visit, erroneously determined that the baby had turned and there would be no breech. No ultrasound test was conducted, nor did a doctor examine the mother; Jocelyn, in fact, was ultimately born in breech position.

The county swiftly appealed the verdict, and that action was pending when the case was settled. The settlement essentially vacates the appeal.

"To appeal it--we could win and we start all over again," Deputy County Counsel Patrick Wu said. "If we lose we're subject to a $7-million judgment with interest accruing."

After the Panduro family sued the hospital, two of the doctors involved sued the county, arguing that the county should indemnify them against damages, attorneys said.

On Tuesday the Board of Supervisors also agreed to settle those claims--for a total of $105,286.

Supervisor Gloria Molina was the sole vote against the settlement, with the other four supervisors approving it.

Still pending, Wu said, is a lawsuit against the county by Santa Marta hospital, which contends it should have been indemnified by the government. A cross-complaint by the county against the hospital's attorneys--whom Wu said had a conflict of interest in the case--was dismissed. That dismissal, he said, has been appealed.

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