by Bradley Parsons
When a doctor at Jacksonville Naval Hospital told Petty Officer Thomas Hugaboom to take his 8-month-old son Michael home, he didn’t hesitate. As an enlisted man, he understood the importance of following orders.
But doctor’s orders in this case led to tragic consequences. The infant’s bacterial meningitis had been misdiagnosed as chicken pox. By the time the child died days later, the sores on his skin were so inflamed that doctors mistook them for burn marks, according to the family’s lawyer, Sean Cronin of Spohrer Wilner Maxwell & Matthews.
It’s a story with which Cronin is becoming too familiar for his taste. He represents seven military families in civil suits against Jacksonville Naval Hospital, alone. In all of them, the combination of bad medical advice and an unwavering dedication to the chain of command have led to death or disfigurement, said Cronin.
“Junior enlisted folks tend to do what they’re told,” said Cronin. “He was told that his child was contagious. He was told not to come back and he said ‘yes sir.’”
Cronin has come to recognize the hesitant demeanor of his military plaintiffs. Challenging superiors, even in court, is a frightening experience for men and women instructed to do as they’re told since the first day of boot camp.
Cronin first saw the uncertainty when Wilmer Rivera walked into his office. A junior enlisted man in the Navy, Rivera lost his wife and unborn child to a botched c-section at a military hospital. It was Rivera’s desperation that convinced Cronin, himself a Naval Air Reserve officer following nine years of active duty, to file a suit against his country.
“Certainly I thought about it deeply,” said Cronin. “But I believe in my cases, I believe in my clients. I’m a former Navy safety officer, so I know that these folks often feel like they have no recourse. The goal of all of this is improving health care for enlisted members of the military.”
Following suits by Cronin and others and the corresponding press coverage, Jacksonville Naval Hospital has put new policies in place aimed at improving its patient care. Capt. Raquel Bono, the hospital’s commanding officer, promised to make the hospital safer and more responsive to its patients. Bono took command of the hospital in August 2005, after the incidents that sparked the civil claims happened.
Those kinds of incidents aren’t confined to Northeast Florida, said Cronin. He’s received complaints from military members across the country originating in Navy towns like San Diego and Norfolk, Va. Spohrer Wilner’s color-coded filing system puts red cover sheets on federal civil claims like the Navy medical malpractice cases. These days, Cronin’s desk is buried under red paper.
The clutter on Cronin’s desk is testament to the dwindling number of attorneys that try medical malpractice cases in Florida, he said. Recent changes to state laws have made the cases less lucrative, but more expensive to try and more difficult to win.
And trying cases against the military brings its own challenges. Records are hard to come by and, since the cases can drag out for as long as four years, witnesses have often been transferred. Cronin had to fly to Naples, Italy to depose one surgeon.
And federal law caps what lawyers can charge in fees. A typical medical malpractice case verdict award pays 40 percent to the lawyer. In suits against the government, fees are capped at 25 percent. That makes trying the costly, complicated cases a risky proposition, said Cronin.