Teen's Suicide / N.C. Court Disputes Malpractice Award

Greensboro News & Record

Copyright 1995

Wednesday, January 11, 1995

TRIAD/STATE

TEEN'S SUICIDE / N.C. COURT DISPUTES MALPRACTICE AWARD

JERI ROWE Staff Writer

The state appeals court has agreed with a Guilford County
jury's verdict but disagreed with their $7.03 million settlement in
a medical-malpractice case.

Robin Miles still remembers those two days in a third-floor
jury room right before Christmas 1991.

She and 11 other jurors decided that Charter Hospital of
Winston-Salem and its parent company owed the family of a suicidal
Greensboro teenager more than $7 million, one of the state's
largest medical-malpractice awards.

Jurors found that Charter Hospital was guilty of willful
negligence following the suicide of Delbert Joseph Muse, a Page
High School sophomore. He committed suicide after being discharged
in 1986 from Charter because his insurance had run out - not
because he had gotten better - jurors ruled.

Last week, the state appeals court agreed with Miles and the
other jurors.

"I feel like I've been exonerated," Miles said Tuesday. "If I
had my druthers, I wouldn't have been on the jury. It was thrust on
us, and we did the best we could, and in good conscious, we made
the only decision I could live with."

The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the jury's ruling against
Charter Hospital and its parent company, Charter Medical Corp., the
nation's largest chain of private psychiatric hospitals with 113
hospitals across the country.

But the three-judge panel found fault with the jury award. The
appeals court ordered the case back to Guilford Superior Court to
decide new - and possibly smaller - punitive damages because they
don't believe two separate awards can be ordered when case law
considers both the company and the hospital "one and the same
person."

Following a six-week trial, the jury ordered Charter to pay $2
million and Charter Medical Corporation to pay $4 million. Joe and
Jane Muse, Delbert's parents, received compensatory damages of
$1.03 million.

But because one of the three appeals-court judges disagreed
with the jury's ruling, Charter Hospital and Charter Medical Corp.
have the right to appeal their entire case - not just punitive
damages - to the state Supreme Court.

The company has yet to make a decision, spokesman Robert Mead
said Tuesday.

"Certain aspects of the court's decision are encouraging," Mead
said. "Our position from the beginning was that our processes in
place at the time were appropriately adhered to."

Delbert Muse, who was known as "Joe," entered Winston-Salem's
Charter Hospital in 1986 because he had made a plan to kill
himself. After 32 days - two days after his insurance ran out - his
doctor sent him home with anti-psychotic and anti-depressant
medicine.

About two weeks later, Muse killed himself by taking an
overdose of that medication.

"I think the family views this case as having nothing to do
with money," said Wade Byrd, a Fayetteville lawyer who represented
the Muses. "They viewed the case as doing something for other
children and the parents of those children who might find
themselves in this position."

A day doesn't go by, Miles said, when she doesn't think about
the case. And when she does, she thinks about her two children.

"How can you replace a child?" Miles asked. "There's nothing in
the world to bring him back. I guess, as a parent, I look back and
say, 'Thank God,' because I'm very fortunate. But there's nothing
to say that it couldn't have been any one of us. You never know."

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