An Amador County jury awarded a 6-year-old Murphys boy an $8.4 million verdict on Wednesday in a medical malpractice lawsuit against Sutter Health Sacramento Sierra Region, Valley Emergency Physicians Medical Group, a doctor, nurse and his biological family for allegedly failing to report evidence of child abuse in 2011.
Cree Miller was seven weeks old when he was first brought to the emergency department at Sutter Amador Hospital in Jackson by his teenage parents and maternal grandmother on Jan. 27, 2011, with bruises, damage to his eye and a mouthful of blood that his biological mother claimed were self-inflicted.
Three weeks later, the infant was brought back to the same hospital with bruises covering much of his body and a catastrophic spinal cord injury that left him permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
Calaveras County Child Protective Services stepped in after Cree’s second trip to the emergency room and removed the boy from his biological family’s home in West Point, but Sonora attorney Jennifer Lothert said the permanent damage he suffered could have been avoided had the medical team called CPS after the first visit as required by California law.
“Picking up the phone and calling CPS is critical and can save a kid’s life,” Lothert said. “We really feel like that would have saved Cree the use of his legs for the rest of his life.”
Examples of mandated reporters who face possible criminal and civil liability for neglecting to report instances of suspected child abuse include teachers, social workers, school administrators, youth center coordinators, medical professionals, firefighters and law enforcement officers.
The award given to Cree by the jury is believed to be the largest verdict in Amador County history, according to Lothert.
However, Amador County Superior Court Judge James D. Garbolino will review the jury’s verdict and determine a final amount because a 1975 law places a $250,000 cap on the amount that defendants in medical malpractice cases can be forced to pay plaintiffs for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering.
About $4 million of the verdict was awarded to Cree for current and future non-economic losses, but Lothert said they could appeal that based on the argument that calling CPS isn’t medical treatment and there’s no cap on such damages for mandated reporters in other professions.
“Teachers, therapists, coaches...” Lothert said. “They could be sued just like the hospital, but they would have to pay all of the damages because there is no cap.”
Defendants ordered to pay $400,000 of the damages were members of Cree’s biological family, including mother, Andrea Soldano, father, Anthony Santana, grandfather, Greg Palmer, and grandmother, Elysee Palmer.
The other $8 million in damages were assigned 20 percent from Sutter Health Sacramento Region, 10.5 percent from Dr. Shawn Brady, 10.5 percent from nurse practitioner Trina Haymond, 9 percent from Valley Emergency Physicians Medical Group Inc, and 12.5 percent from each of the four biological family members named in the suit.
Lothert began pursuing the case in 2012 after Cree’s adoptive mother, Dawn Miller, of Murphys, came to her with concerns about about what happened to her son.
After doing some research, Lothert contacted San Francisco child-abuse lawyer Christopher Keane and Los Angeles personal-injury lawyer Edward Stark to see if they would assist in seeing through the case to trial.
The lawsuit was filed in March 2013 and a jury trial began Sept.5 of this year, with the jury reaching a verdict on Oct. 18 after about three days of deliberation.
Lothert, who lives in Tuolumne County with her husband, said the case struck a personal chord with her as a former adoption social worker who flirted with the idea of doing child advocacy work after law school. She has also become a foster parent.
“I would like to do more cases like this one,” Lothert said. “They’re the right cases to be doing.”
Lothert said Cree’s biological family chose not to fight the charges in the lawsuit and were presumed to be responsible throughout the case, but Soldano has never confessed to hurting the boy despite serving time in juvenile hall on related charges.
Cree has lived in Murphys with Miller since she became his foster parent in 2011 after he was released from Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento.
“When I walked in the room and saw him, it just broke my heart,” Miller said of first seeing Cree. “He just stared at the ceiling.”
In addition to raising two children who are now in the military, Miller has fostered more than a dozen kids at her small ranch in Murphys since 2011. She has also adopted three of her foster children including Cree, with a fourth adoption set to take place Friday.
Cree was originally supposed to be adopted by another couple, but Miller said he would “shut down” during visits with his prospective parents.
“He would not make eye contact, would refuse to eat and run a fever and they have to call and bring him home early,” Miller said. “After doing this for six weeks and trying to do everything, I knew that he had chosen me to be his mom.”
Cree was Miller’s first foster child following the death of her husband of 24 years, John Miller, in 2009.
Miller said she was worried about being able to handle Cree’s special needs due to his paralysis without her husband, but she believes their paths crossed for a reason.
“I prayed a lot about it,” Miller said. “I know this probably sounds corny to a lot of people, but I have a strong religious faith and believe that when a baby is sent to me it’s for a purpose.”
After the adoption was finalized, Miller received Cree’s medical records and reviewed them. That’s when she started to feel like something had gone wrong and brought her concerns to Lothert.
“The system had failed him,” Miller said.
Miller said she’s not a litigious person and filing the lawsuit wasn’t an easy decision, but she did it for his future. She added that the money Cree receives from the lawsuit will be used to ensure that his needs are taken care of, even after she’s gone.
Miller also hopes that the verdict will prevent other children from suffering the same consequences.
“People don’t realize all they have to do is make the call, then it’s out of their hands and CPS comes in and does their job,” Miller said.
Sutter Health has not announced any plans to appeal the verdict, though Lothert said she believes that’s “almost certain.”
Nancy Turner, spokeswoman for Sutter Health, said she would look into whether Dr. Shawn Brady and nurse practitioner Trina Haymond are still working at Sutter Amador Hospital, but did not provide an answer Friday night.
“We are very sorry for what Cree and the Miller family has experienced,” Turner said in a written statement sent via e-mail Friday afternoon. “This case offers us the opportunity for analysis and to learn as much as we can about how to improve. Our goal is to deliver the highest quality care and to treat all our patients with compassion and dignity.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.