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No-Show at Trial Costs the County $12 Million

August 02, 2002|GARRET THEROLF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge has ordered Los Angeles County to pay $12.3 million in damages to the plaintiff in a medical malpractice suit after the county's private attorney failed for three days to show up for trial.

Veronica Oliveros, who sued after suffering brain damage while at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center for heart surgery, won the judgment on the fourth day.

Defense attorney George Peterson initially had asked that the trial be delayed while he attended to another trial. Superior Court Judge Josh M. Fredericks refused, ordering the malpractice case to go forward. But Peterson never appeared.

On the fourth day, when the judge decided that the jury inevitably would decide in Oliveros' favor, he ordered a verdict against the county and the $12.3-million penalty. The county is appealing the decision.

With the county facing a $800-million deficit in its system of hospitals and clinics, the loss of $12 million "is pretty outrageous," said Miguel Santana, spokesman for Supervisor Gloria Molina. "How many clinics could we keep open with $12 million?"

Peterson works for the law firm of Bonne, Bridges, Mueller, O'Keefe & Nichols, which has received nearly $500,000 in fees from the county over the last three years.

Gary Miller, deputy county counsel, said the judge's decision not to delay the trial while Peterson worked on his other case violated the government's right to due process. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, Lloyd Pellman, county counsel, said the malpractice case was too complex to be reassigned to another defense attorney on short notice.

However, Oliveros' attorney, Rolando Hidalgo, told the court that other attorneys at Peterson's firm had worked on the case and would be capable of handling the trial during the early stages.

"Some defense firm thought they were above the law, and the court told them they weren't," Hidalgo said. "Hundreds of hours went into this case, and for them to thumb their nose at the process was not appreciated."

Oliveros, 30, suffered brain damage while at Harbor-UCLA for surgery to replace one of her heart valves in 1996.

Hidalgo said she awoke from surgery and removed a ventilator that was irritating her. The resulting loss of oxygen, he said, damaged her brain. He alleges that nurses improperly decided not to place restraints on Oliveros' arms.

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