Thursday, October 24, 2019

Alabama jury awards $9 million in medical-malpractice case where Auburn student died of a blood clot after receiving prescription for birth-control pills

Hope Johnson
An Alabama jury has awarded $9 million in a medical-malpractice lawsuit involving the death of an Auburn University student, according to a report at

Hope Johnson, 20, of Trussville, died in December 2014 after being prescribed birth-control pills that led to a blood-clot in her lung. Brett Turnbull, of Birmingham, was the primary attorney for the Johnson family. From

A jury in Opelika, Alabama, awarded $9 million to the family of a young woman who died after being prescribed birth control pills that led to the development of a blood clot in her lung.

A screening prior to her receiving the medication revealed that Hope Johnson had a genetic predisposition for blood clots, but the obstetrician-gynecologist prescribed the pills anyway. When Johnson became ill a couple of weeks later, a doctor at an Auburn urgent care facility at first diagnosed her with bronchitis and prescribed an antibiotic. She returned two days later complaining of sharp chest pains, and another doctor—who was on his first day working at the center and unable to access its electronic records—prescribed an inhaler.

Johnson died the next day of a massive pulmonary embolism. The Auburn University student was 20 years old.

Roughly one week before trial, the OB/GYN and clinic he worked for, Lee Obstetrics and Gynecology, settled their claims for a confidential amount, Turnbull said. The jury verdict was entered against Auburn Urgent Care and its owner and founder, Dr. Zenon Bednarski, along with Dr. David Willis.

In an unusual twist, Turnbull said Urgent Care and Bednarski were represented by counsel, but Willis was left to represent himself. The discovery that Willis would appear pro se “was one of the most vexing moments of my career,” said Turnbull, who tried the case with filing attorneys Leila H. Watson and Nina Herring, his former colleagues at Cory Watson in Birmingham.

“[Willis] had the full ability to participate; he made opening and closing statements; he had the ability to call witnesses; … he was given as fair a shake as possible,” Turnbull said.

Because Alabama does not have an apportionment statute, Turnbull said he didn’t think the issue of representation would matter as far as collecting the judgment.

“We have joint and several liability in Alabama, so all three defendants are responsible,” he said.

Mistakes started piling up early in Johnson's encounter with the health-care system. Writes

According to Turnbull and court filings, Johnson consulted with OB/GYN Kerri Hensarling at Lee Obstetrics and Gynecology in October 2014 about getting birth control pills.

“Her mom went with her. She has a history of blood clots and realized there may have been a genetic issue,” he said.

A blood test came back positive for a Factor V Leiden mutation, but court filings said staffers incorrectly interpreted the result as normal, which is what Johnson was told.

She began taking the pills that November, and on Dec. 1 she went to Urgent Care complaining of shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, headache and sore throat. She told Bednarski that she was taking birth control pills but did not report the blood clotting issue because she was unaware of it, according to plaintiff’s filings.

She was diagnosed with “possible pneumonia and bronchitis,” said Turnbull, and prescribed an antibiotic.

When she returned two days later she “was much worse, experiencing chest pain and extreme shortness of breath” resulting from “any activity.”

Willis ordered blood work and found that Johnson had an elevated white blood count and prescribed an inhaler. She died Dec. 4, 2014.

Plaintiffs argued, in part, that Johnson's death was the result of inadequate staffing:

Johnson’s mother and executor, Cortney Johnson, filed suit in Lee County Circuit Court in 2016.

Turnbull said he was not at liberty to discuss any settlement demands or offers, and the case went to trial Oct. 7 before Judge Jacob Walker III.

At trial, Turnbull said the defense argued that the doctors responded reasonably to the symptoms Johnson displayed and had no way of knowing about the predisposition for blood clots, pointing to the dismissed co-defendants who misread the test results as the culprits.

“Our position was that they hired Dr. Willis to come in on his first day, at the busiest and most popular Urgent Care facility, in December—the height of flu season—and he got behind,” said Turnbull.

He said there was some effort to argue that Willis may not have even examined Johnson.

“They said, ‘Oh, it’s a big mystery, maybe we didn’t even see her,’” Turnbull said. “They took her vitals and gave her a prescription. I actually got angry at that defense.”

In closing, Turnbull said he asked the jury to award $9 million in damages.

“I said it was a symbol that Hope’s life matters, that her death matters; that the tools of the law in Alabama should be used to deter similar conduct in this community,” he said.

The jury took about 1½ hours to award exactly that amount on Oct. 11, Turnbull said.

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