NEW PORT RICHEY — The lawyers drew battle lines with boxes of documents. On the hospital's side of the courtroom, trial accoutrement spilled from the attorneys' table to the first few pews. First row: three computers and support personnel. Second row: neatly stacked cardboard. Third row: same. Two cases of Zephyrhills bottled water, too. Also, a projection screen for viewing PowerPoint presentations and medical records.
On the other side, lawyer Steven Deutsch and his associates had a few boxes of their own lining the first row. They came armed with poster board and an easel, and some blown-up medical photographs.
In the middle of it, Arcadio Hernandez, 21, sat with an immobile hand and walked with a cane. The collar of his polo shirt was half down and half up. It wasn't clear if he understood what was going on around him — according to Deutsch, he had suffered "catastrophic brain damage."
Deutsch said his client was misdiagnosed at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital in New Port Richey, and as a result suffered from a brain aneurysm. He's suing the hospital for negligence and damages, seeking upward of $8.5 million. Lawyers on the other side say the diagnosis was reasonable, given the circumstances, and there was no negligence.
On July 10, 2010, Hernandez, then 17, went to the emergency room complaining of pain on or around his eye. He was seen by the nursing staff and a physician's assistant, Bethany Berghoffer, who diagnosed him with a form of conjunctivitis, commonly known as "pink eye." A supervising doctor named Helene Harper never examined Hernandez, but signed off on Berghoffer's diagnosis. They gave him a prescription for antibiotics and sent him on his way.
"(He had) a sentinel bleed of an aneurysm present behind his right eye," Deutsch said in his opening statement. "Had the appropriate care been given, had a CAT scan been ordered, there would be no negligence."
That November, according to Deutsch, the aneurysm burst, and Hernandez had to have an emergency procedure. Had they properly diagnosed his condition in July, Deutsch said, Hernandez wouldn't be in his current state.
In addition to his physical disabilities, Hernandez suffers from brain damage, trouble concentrating, seizures and "problems with judgment and reasoning," Deutsch said.
Before the injury, he said, Hernandez was healthy. He had dropped out of school and was living with his father, but planned to get a General Educational Development diploma. Now, he moves from couch to couch and is depressed about his condition, Deutsch said.
Hernandez will need a life coach and caretaker for the rest of his life, and Deutsch hired an economist to calculate Hernandez's lifetime earning potential.
Louis La Cava is representing the hospital in the case. In his opening statement Tuesday, he said Hernandez didn't have any symptoms related to a brain bleed.
"It's like the worst headache of your life," La Cava said. "That's the complaint you get if you're bleeding in the head."
Andrew Efaw, one of the attorneys for Berghoffer and Harper, took that idea further. Hernandez's symptoms, he said, changed over time to better fit the lawsuit. There's a discrepancy, he said, on what side Hernandez said he felt the pain, or if it was a headache or not. A medical record says the pain was on the left side; Hernandez alleges it was the right.
"I suspect (during testimony) he's going to say, 'Well, really I had a headache; the record's wrong,' " Efaw said. "I suspect he's going to say, 'It wasn't eye pain; it was head pain.' "
The trial is expected to last two weeks.