Hospital may fight $2.2 million award

Florida Hospital says the anesthesiologist wasn’t an employee.

By Greg Groeller

Florida Hospital may appeal a jury’s decision to award millions of dollars to the husband of a woman who claimed that a bungled medical procedure left her paralyzed.

In a suit filed in 1996, Eleanor Karstetter of Kissimmee claimed that an anesthesiologist at the hospital punctured her spinal cord 18 times while trying to insert a morphine pump – a device designed to alleviate chronic back pain – near her spine. Karstetter, who was paralyzed below the waist, died in 1998 at the age of 67.

Florida Hospital had argued that it wasn’t liable because the doctor, Douglas Conigliaro, was not an employee of the hospital when the incident occurred Nov 28, 1995. Rather, Conigliaro was employed by Joseph L. Riley Anesthesia Associates, a private company whose employees worked at Florida Hospital’s pain clinic on its campus near downtown Orlando.

Conigliaro, who still works at Florida Hospital for Joseph L. Riley, could not be reached for comment. Conigliaro and Joseph L. Riley reached a $1 million settlement with Eleanor Karstetter’s husband, Robert, in April 1999.

A jury didn’t buy Florida Hospital’s argument that Conigliaro wasn’t an employee. In its verdict, the jury said that the doctor was the “apparent agent” of the hospital, meaning that most patients would think that he was a hospital employee. The jury agreed to the suit’s request for $3.2 million in damages. A judge later reduced the award to $2.2 million to reflect Conigliaro’s settlement with Robert Karstetter.

“We are disappointed and surprised with the judgment, and we are investigating all options, which include the possibility of an appeal,” Florida Hospital said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the hospital would not comment further.

According to the suit, Conigliaro tried for seven hours to insert the morphine pump into Eleanor Karstetter’s spine, a procedure that normally takes two hours. Although Karstetter was showing evidence of paralysis, Conigliaro waited an additional seven hours after the procedure ended before consulting a neurosurgeon, the suit stated.

The size of the jury’s award is not considered unusually high given the extent of Karstetter’s injuries, said Robert Cunningham, a Mobile, Ala. lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice suits.

“Generally, hospitals will deny everything and that makes things worse for them if it goes to a jury,” Cunningham said.

In the suit, the Karstetters argued that there was no way for them to tell that Conigliaro was not an employee of the hospital. The procedure was done on Florida Hospital’s property with hospital-owned equipment. Furthermore, no signs were posted stating doctors weren’t employees, the suit stated.

“One of the biggest reasons my wife and I agreed to be treated at the Florida Hospital pain clinic was because we believed it was part of the Florida Hospital system,” Robert Karstetter said in the suit.

Hospitals often argue that doctors aren’t employees when they are defendants in medial malpractice cases, said Bill Bell, an attorney for the Florida Hospital Association. Whether a jury agrees with that argument depends on the details of the case, he said.

The Orlando Sentinel
Thu., February 10, 2000

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