Greensboro News & Record
Wednesday, January 11, 1995
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.”