A Virginia Beach psychiatrist who suffered a brain injury after an attack by a patient has recovered $5.35 million from the hospital on a claim of inadequate security.
The attack took place on March 21, 2007, after the patient approached Dr. Udaya Shetty three times within a single half hour.
The first time, the man directed the words “medical, medical, medical” at Shetty, and hospital staff escorted the patient away from the nurses’ station where Shetty was working.
The second time, Shetty was inside the nurses’ station, and the patient entered it, put his hand in the form of a pistol with his forefinger against Shetty’s temple and said, “Bang.”
Staff members hustled the patient away toward a timeout room as he cursed and screamed.
While he was in the room, a nurse gave the patient a shot of the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, and staff members observed him briefly and finally left him alone in the room.
The third time, the patient attacked Shetty, again inside the nurses’ station, and fractured the psychiatrist’s skull. Shetty suffered a concussion and traumatic brain injury from the attack, which left him depressed and with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He also sustained an eye injury that leaves him seeing double when he looks up.
Shetty’s attorneys, Jason J. Ham of Harrisonburg and John G. Stepanovich of Chesapeake, contended that the hospital, Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center, failed to provide an appropriate level of security.
A Norfolk Circuit Court jury agreed last month. It awarded Shetty $5.35 million – the $5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages that his attorneys asked for.
Robert W. McFarland, the Norfolk attorney who represented Psychiatric Solutions Inc., the parent company of the Virginia Beach center, disputed the jury’s conclusion. Hospital staff “not only met but exceeded the standard for dealing with the patient,” he said. “It was an unfortunate but unforeseeable incident.”
Unfortunate, yes, but hardly unforeseeable, Ham said.
The patient, who was 37 at the time, had a history of violence, including an attack that broke another psychiatrist’s jaw.
Moreover, he had been involuntarily committed to the hospital for treatment, which meant that he was a danger to himself or others or was unable to care for himself, Ham said.
And the patient and Shetty had a history, which Ham contended that the hospital knew more about than Shetty did.
Shetty had seen the patient once or twice in 2005, and the patient, who was a convert to Islam, had formed the delusion that Shetty had stolen his Quran.
Records from the patient’s 2007 admission reflected that the patient had mentioned to the hospital staff his belief that Shetty had stolen his Quran.
In fact, a staff member asked Shetty before the attack if he had taken the patient’s Quran. Shetty testified that he took question as a joke and did not recall having treated Shetty two years earlier and did not recognize him the day of the attack.
Shetty had physician privileges at the hospital and was working on the charts of other patients at the time.
Ham emphasized that the only security on the hospital staff was a part-time guard who worked primarily in its parking lot, even though evidence showed that attacks occurred at the hospital every few days.
Hospital security experts testified for Shetty that full-time security personnel are necessary in such a volatile environment.
Ham noted that the parent corporation had a profit of $76.3 million on income of $1.48 billion and suggested that it had placed a higher value on profits than safety.
McFarland called his own security experts to testify that the staff handled the three situations appropriately. He emphasized that all hospital staff get eight hours of training when they are hired on how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations with four hours of follow-up training every year. In this case, staff responded immediately to each confrontation.
The patient had calmed down after he was given the shot, and there was no indication that locking him in the room or placing him in restraints, which would have required an order by a psychiatrist, was necessary, McFarland argued.
The third response was much too late, Ham said, and leaving the patient by himself and free to move about the hospital demonstrated the inadequacy of the hospital’s security.
The injuries to the 55-year-old Shetty left him unable to work 60 and 70 hours a week as he did before the attack, and his income is barely half the $455,000 he earned annually before the incident, Ham said.
That means the injury will cost Shetty about $3.7 in lost income, Ham contended.
Shetty is a native of India who was educated there and received further training at Wayne State University in Michigan.
McFarland argued that the decline in Shetty’s income represented a change in the nature of his practice more than any lack of energy or effort on his part.
The practice had included an association with another psychiatrist and seven therapists before the attack, but the other psychiatrist and five of the therapists are no longer working with Shetty, McFarland noted.
The hospital did not make an offer to settle the case until Judge Norman A. Thomas denied its motion to strike at the end of the evidence, when it put up $100,000.
Two questions from the jury early in its deliberations prompted a higher but confidential offer. The jury wanted to know about security at the center now, and it asked if it could award more than sued for and give $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitives, Ham said.
Ham countered with an offer of $1.5 million, which the hospital rejected.
Thomas asked the attorneys to develop a briefing schedule that will allow him to hear arguments on post-trial motions by the end of the month.