Brissett v. David C. Watts, M.D. and Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Institute P.C. a/k/a Cosmetic & Reconstructive Surgery Institute Inc., No. 130201770 (2015)

Plaintiff, a 45-year-old truck driver, was frying fish in his kitchen without wearing a shirt May 1, 2011 when the cooking grease caught fire. After Mr. Brissett put out the fire, and his girlfriend returned home, she drove him to the emergency room at South Jersey Regional Medical Center, where he was diagnosed as having first- and second-degree burns on 8% of his body surface. The burns were debrided, ointment was applied, and Brissett saw his family physician two days later.

Brissett was referred to Defendant Watts and his practice, Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Institute, which Brissett visited. While Watts’ stated that the reason for the visit as second-degree burns, Watts diagnosed Brissett as having first-, second- and third-degree burns over 15 to 20% of his body. Watts then explained to Brissett that he needed surgery very quickly, and scheduled Brissett for surgery at his outpatient surgical center the next day.

During the May 4, 2011, surgery, in which Watts performed the skin grafts, the burns were debrided, and then skin was taken from Brissett’s thigh and grafted to both his forearms and the right side of his chest. The grafted skin was secured with staples.

The skin graft left Brissett with severe scars and pain, and Brissett’s wounds would have healed with only minor scarring if the surgery had not been performed.

Brissett sued Watts and his practice, alleging negligence.

Brissett argued that he did not suffer any third-degree burns, and the skin grafts were unnecessary. He noted that every doctor who saw Brissett determined that the burns were, at worst, second-degree, and that second-degree burns heal well with minimal scarring and do not require skin grafts. A pathology evaluation of the removed tissue determined that the burns were either superficial or split-thickness burns, and no full-thickness third-degree burns were found.

An expert stated that even if the burns were as severe as diagnosed, Plaintiff should not have been rushed into surgery so soon after the burn and should have instead been referred to a burn center for treatment.

A jury found against the defendant, and awarded plaintiff Brissett $3 million in damages for pain and suffering.

Cawthern v. Reading Materials Inc., Haines and Kibbelhouse Inc., Current Connection & Mechanical Services Inc., Current Connection Electrical Contractor Inc. and Metropolitan Edison Co. v. J.I. Miller Inc. Electrical Contractors, No. 100601713 (2011)

On Oct. 9, 2009, plaintiff James Cawthern, an industrial software technician and an employee of Process Control Solutions, was dispatched to the Reading Materials Inc. plant in Skippack, also known as the South Reading Blacktop plant.

Cawthern was dispatched there to troubleshoot the plant’s programmable logic controller system, which had failed the previous day. The system remotely controls the motors that power the plant’s industrial equipment. According to Cawthern, he and employees of Haines and Kibbelhouse Inc. got the system running, but determined that it needed to be tested in the afternoon. After purchasing lunch, Cawthern returned to the electrical room and sat on a bucket with his back to the main breaker panel of the motor control center.

While eating in the electrical room with his back to the main breaker panel, Cawthern’s co-worker heard a buzzing noise which was inaudible to Cawthern, given his high-frequency hearing loss. Cawthern did see, however, sparks and noticed the odor of ozone gas, which prompted him to shove his co-worker out of the room in an effort to escape. Suddenly, and without warning, a plasma blast occurred, a fire erupted and Cawthern was launched into the air.

Cawthern was intubated and transported by helicopter to Lehigh Valley Hospital, where he was diagnosed with second- and third-degree burns over 52.5% of his body, smoke inhalation and burns to his larynx and trachea. Cawthern was in a medically-induced coma for two weeks, during which time he underwent several surgeries for burn treatments, skin grafts, and bronchoscopes. Cawthern was also diagnosed with multiple oral/pharyngeal dysphagia, and subsequently developed repeated cases of pneumonia. The plaintiff claimed that during his hospitalization, he suffered from several serious medical events secondary to his injuries, including tachycardia, acute respiratory failure, left lung collapse and a large left pleural effusion that required thoracentesis.

Cawthern sued Reading Materials, Haines and Kibbelhouse Inc. for negligent maintenance of the plant. Cawthern’s lawsuit also named other power companies and firms which had performed electrical work at the plant, all of them dismissed by the plaintiff soon after litigation commenced: Current Connection & Mechanical Services Inc., Current Connection Electrical Contractor Inc., and Metropolitan Edison Co.

Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the accident was the result of a failure to perform routine maintenance. The company’s chief electrician admitted in his deposition that the maintenance was not performed and testified that the reason was financial because any work on the electrical system would force “downtime” at the plant. Counsel maintained that the defendants owed a duty to act reasonably in the installation, maintenance, and repair of the electrical lines involved in Cawthern’s accident and in utilizing step-down electricity at the South Reading Blacktop plant. Counsel also noted that the main breaker panel where Cawthern was eating his lunch on the date of the accident was not labeled so as to alert outside contractors of the voltage levels.

The defendants denied liability and eventually entered into settlement negotiations with the plaintiff. The parties settled for $13.9 million during mediation, before the submission of expert witness reports.

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