Jury’s $40 million award stands in cooked-heart case

A California manufacturer of medical devices “chose to cross their fingers and roll the dice,” gambling with people’s lives, a Snohomish County Superior Court judge said Wednesday.

Judge Linda Krese said it amounted to “reckless disregard for the safety of others” when Edwards Lifesciences Inc. failed to warn users about dangers of a machine that malfunctioned and literally cooked a man’s live heart in 2004.

Krese let stand a March 10 jury verdict awarding $40.1 million, mostly to a Mount Vernon family. Paramjit Singh’s heart was burned so badly it would not function and he received a heart transplant.

The judge declined to reduce both compensatory and punitive damages to Singh, his wife and their three children. The jury also awarded Providence Everett Medical Center $310,000.

Krese also turned down an Edwards motion for a new trial.

The jury ruled that Edwards, of Irvine, Calif., bears almost all the blame for what happened to Singh, 54, because it didn’t tell doctors about flaws in the device that could cause overheating under certain circumstances.

The judge said the company also made a corporate decision not to recall the devices, thus risking people’s lives.

The award is believed to be the largest civil jury verdict ever in Snohomish County, and one of the largest in the state.

Singh went into Providence in October 2004 for relatively routine heart bypass surgery. A monitor made by Edwards malfunctioned, turned off fail-safe devices and caused a catheter inserted into Singh’s heart to reach temperatures up to 500 degrees.

The machine was supposed to monitor blood flow and other conditions.

After the surgery, doctors couldn’t restart Singh’s burned heart. Singh was kept alive with blood-pumping machines and received a heart transplant at University of Washington Medical Center 11 weeks later.

The jury heard testimony over five weeks and deliberated four days before announcing a decision. The testimony included information that Singh has already has had significant health problems stemming from the heart transplant and likely will have more.

During the trial, Edwards lawyers admitted responsibility for Singh’s injuries but maintained that Providence shared responsibility. The jury found that Providence was only 0.01 percent responsible.

Edwards is expected to appeal, lawyers said.

On Wednesday, Edwards lawyer Paul Esposito of Chicago argued that the judge should not have allowed an instruction on the law that told jurors to disregard whether either Singh or Edwards had insurance. Esposito said that instruction drew attention to the possibility that an insurance carrier might pay, not Edwards.

“We’re paying more because of this instruction,” Esposito said.

He maintained that the dollar awards were excessive, and that it was wrong for the jury to conclude Edwards’ actions were “despicable,” which led to punitive damages of more than $8 million.

Singh lawyer Robert Gellatly of Seattle told the judge that the “jury verdict was well within the evidence” at trial. Singh “has endured horrendous injuries, horrendous damages.”

The machine should not have malfunctioned, and Edwards was gradually fixing the problem as machines came back for maintenance, said another Singh lawyer, Andrew Hoyal of Seattle.

“Edwards knew what the problem was. They knew what could happen,” Hoyal said. “This was worse than reckless behavior.”

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

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