Malpractice: Behind a $26,000,000 Award to a Boy Injured in Surgery

Date:01-10-1990
Publication:New York Magazine
Author:Steve Cohen
Case
Attorney(s):Thomas A. Moore
Practice Area(s):Medical Malpractice
Summary:A Manhattan jury awarded 16-year-old Stephen Melis $26 million, the country's second largest malpractice verdict in 1989 and one of the largest verdicts in New York's history. Tom Moore represented Stephen during the seven-week-long trial with less than four hours of deliberations.

Steve Cohen's unique feature-length article for New York Magazine focused on his "soul-searching experience" as an alternate juror in the case. To get an even deeper understanding of the trial, Mr. Cohen invited all the jurors to his home, and interviewed all the lawyers and Stephen's family members. "Precisely what happened, why, and the extent of Stephen's injuries were the crux of the case," Mr. Cohen wrote.

Stephen Melis, at age seven, had a hereditary defect so that he could not expel phlegm, a condition that can lead to infection. He needed an operation on his right lung to correct this. "During the surgery," Mr. Cohen wrote, "Stephen was dependent on the healthy left lung to breathe. But blood somehow leaked into the left lung and clogged it, preventing Stephen from getting oxygen. Without oxygen, Stephen's heart stopped," and he suffered brain damage.

The writer described 16-year-old Stephen's appearance in the courtroom: "Stephen suffers from seizures, along with gross and fine motor impairment." Many jurors were in tears as they watched Stephen try to run, solve a few math problems (all of which he got wrong), and walk heel to toe (Stephen did not seem to understand what was being asked of him).

The jury learned that during surgery an inexperienced resident had administered the anesthesia. Stephen was "pulseless for ten minutes," as Mr. Moore brought out during testimony. Blood never should have leaked into Stephen's left lung; his heart attack should never have happened. Mr. Cohen wrote that "the jury had seen something quite extraordinary: Moore had destroyed the testimony of the defense's lead expert witness we had become captivated by Tom Moore's skill" at showing the jury, despite conflicting stories, what actually happened in the operating room.