Father found not legally at fault in teen's death

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled this month that a father is not legally at fault in a wrongful death case involving his 16-year-old daughter, who died of sudden heart arrhythmia at Ashland Community Hospital after overdosing on drugs.

Sara Joy Burnson died in 2002. Her mother, Katrina Son, sued the hospital and Ashland doctors Paul Rostykus and John Delgado, who took care of Burnson on the day she was brought to the hospital.

When the case finally went to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court in 2007, a jury returned a verdict that Rostykus was 30 percent responsible, Delgado 30 percent, the dead teenager 25 percent and her father, David Burns, 15 percent.

The jury awarded $740,000 in damages. The court reduced that amount to $444,000 to account for the 40 percent of fault attributed to the teen and her father. The court entered a $222,000 judgment against each doctor.

The teen's mother appealed, asking that her daughter and the father not be found at fault, and that the full fault be placed on the doctors. Ashland Community Hospital and the doctors also appealed, alleging a juror was biased against one of the doctors, that the teen was to blame for ingesting drugs and the father was to blame for not securing pills at his house and not supervising the girl at a party.

After hearing arguments in March, the Oregon Court of Appeals filed a decision on Dec. 15 that the father was not legally at fault in the wrongful death case, but that the girl and the doctors remained at fault.

Son, the teen's mother, said none of the parties in the case can discuss the decision for a month while they wait to see whether that decision will be appealed.

The two doctors did not return phone calls for comment, and Burns could not be reached.

According to the Court of Appeals' written decision, the teen attended an end-of-the-season party for her softball team in 2002 that was supposed to be a sleepover at a teammate's house, but turned into an unsupervised party at a local motel.

When Burns, the father, found out about the unsupervised nature of the party, he contacted his daughter and told her to be home by her curfew.

When she came home late, they argued. At some point after Burns went to bed, Burnson ingested an unknown number of pills, including leftover pills prescribed to Burns that he had stored in a box in the garage.

The next morning, she was uncoordinated, incoherent and vomiting, and Burns took her to the hospital. Hospital records indicate that the teen told a nurse that she had consumed alcohol and cocaine at the party. Burns' fiancée and one of the girl's friends gathered empty pill bottles and loose pills and brought them to the hospital. One of the empty pill bottles was for a drug containing acetaminophen and propoxyphene.

The teen was treated with medicine to combat narcotics in her system and for acetaminophen toxicity.

At about 5 p.m., Burnson died, with the cause of death listed as sudden heart arrhythmia caused by propoxyphene overdose.

The doctors' lawyers argued that she did not die from propoxyphene poisoning, she was appropriately treated for acetaminophen poisoning and that their treatment plan was also within the standard of care for propoxyphene poisoning.

According to medical experts who testified against the doctors at the trial, Burnson's life could have been saved by simply administering sodium bicarbonate — the ingredient in baking soda.

According to the Oregon Court of Appeals, Burnson could not be found legally at fault in the wrongful death case for taking the drugs, but she was partially at fault for not telling hospital staff what she had taken.

According to the written decision, in a medical malpractice case, a patient can, for example, hurt his arm through his own negligence, but the original cause of the arm injury has no bearing on a malpractice case. If the arm had to be amputated because of a doctor's negligence, that would be the doctor's fault. But if the patient failed to follow the doctor's directions for caring for his arm, refused treatment or intentionally gave incomplete or inaccurate information, the patient could be faulted.

The Oregon Court of Appeals found that the teen's father was not legally at fault in the wrongful death case because any actions he took that may have contributed to her death happened before she was hospitalized.

Lawyers for the doctors had argued that Burns was partially at fault because two months before she died, Burnson, who lived with her father, made a possible suicidal gesture by taking a number of unidentified pills. They said Burns failed to secure prescription and non-prescription drugs in the house, and failed to supervise his daughter at the hotel room softball team party.

The Jackson County Circuit Court jury had agreed with that argument in allocating 15 percent of the blame to the father. The Oregon Court of Appeals overturned that portion of the jury's verdict, placing no legal fault on the father.

The appeals court reallocated the fault for Burnson's death, placing 29.4 percent of the fault on the teen herself and 35.3 percent of the fault on each of the two doctors.

In 1994, Burnson's 11-year-old brother, Adam Jasper Burnson, was killed when a drunken driver crossed the center line of Highway 66 and struck the boy while he was riding home on his bicycle.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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