Baltimore Jury Awards $28M in Damages Over Alleged Misdiagnosed Ulcer

Baltimore Sun (MD)

A Baltimore jury has awarded $28 million in damages to a patient who accused doctors of misdiagnosing an ulcer.

Gary B. Stern, a former restaurant owner from Glen Burnie, filed a lawsuit in March 2014 in Baltimore Circuit Court alleging that abdominal pain from an intestinal ulcer was misdiagnosed in 2011.

A perforated ulcer led to more than a dozen surgeries and nearly three years of hospitalizations, leaving Stern with short-bowel syndrome and unable to work or care for himself, the lawsuit said.

A jury in September found that doctors Todd Heller and Steven Epstein, gastroenterologists at Woodholme Gastroenterology Associates, "deviated from the standard of care" in treating Stern, causing injury and damage.

"We totally expected and hoped for a large verdict for his future needs," said Jay Miller, an attorney with the Law Offices of Peter Angelos in Baltimore who represented Stern with attorney Michael S. Warshaw.

After a three-week trial, the jury awarded more than $14 million in future medical and life care expenses, $8 million in noneconomic damage, $5 million in damages to Stern's marital relationship and more than $1 million in past medical expenses, according to the verdict.

The $13 million portion of nonmedical damages will be reduced to $695,000 under a state cap, Miller said.

The award will help Stern and his wife afford a full-time caregiver, Miller said.

"What he needs is round-the-clock care from a nurse," Miller said. "He's in a wheelchair and gets nutrition through a central line. He's very weak from it and has muscle wasting. ... The nutrition itself is extremely expensive."

"We are very disappointed with the verdict," the physicians' attorney, John R. Penhallegon of Cornblatt, Bennett, Penhallegon & Roberson, said in an email. "It is not supported by the evidence, and there will be an appeal. Mr. Stern's injuries were caused by others who settled before the trial."

Heller joined another doctor in 1989 in forming what is now Woodholme Gastroenterology and is board-certified both in internal medicine and gastroenterology, according to Woodholme's website.

Epstein, who is from Baltimore, completed his internal medicine residency at the University of Maryland and a gastroenterology fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, according to the practice's website.

Stern said in the lawsuit that his health problems arose in May 2011, when he went to a hospital emergency department with abdominal pain. Then 47, he had been active and healthy, the lawsuit said, with a medical history of Crohn's disease but no significant problems for more than a decade.

According to the complaint, doctors were negligent in diagnosing the symptoms as an exacerbation of Crohn's without considering any other diagnoses, and that subsequent surgeries caused the Crohn's to flare.