Doctor's assistance leads to mistrial

Doctor's assistance leads to mistrial

URBANA – In a reversal of an earlier decision, a Champaign County judge Wednesday granted a mistrial in a medical malpractice case in which a physician witness helped a juror having a medical emergency in the courtroom.

"I'm pretty aware of what I've just done and the impact it has on everybody. I'm sorry," said Judge Michael Jones, moments after taking the bench Wednesday morning.

The ruling came on the third day of what was expected to be at least a weeklong trial pitting a young Charleston couple, Eric and Kimberly Shambo, against former Provena Covenant Medical Center neonatologist Dr. Nestor Ramirez.

The Shambos' son, Jacob, died March 28, 2001, at the age of one week while under the care of Ramirez at Provena Covenant Medical Center, also a defendant in the lawsuit. The Shambos filed their lawsuit in March 2003. Also named as a defendant was Christie Clinic, Ramirez' employer at the time.

Dr. Robin Steinhorn, a Chicago neonatologist, was the first expert witness on behalf of the Shambos and was only minutes into her testimony at about 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, when a middle-aged juror indicated she wasn't feeling well.

Steinhorn, who practices at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and teaches at Northwestern University in Evanston, asked the judge if she could approach the juror, who was having difficulty breathing, had broken out in a sweat, and was very pale.

Jones ordered Steinhorn to see if she could help her while emergency personnel were en route to the courthouse. The other jurors and the approximately 20 spectators, many of them University of Illinois law students, were removed from the courtroom.

Urbana firefighters and emergency medical technicians treated the woman, who was complaining of shortness of breath and chest pains, and took her to Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana.

Jury coordinator Shirley Marshall said she spoke to the woman on both Tuesday and Wednesday and said she was coherent and undergoing tests.

When the trial resumed, Champaign attorney Bill Brinkmann, representing Ramirez, said he "regretfully" had to ask Jones to declare a mistrial because some of the jurors had seen Steinhorn, a key witness in the plaintiff's case against Ramirez, aid the juror.

"We're now in a situation where some jurors probably think Dr. Steinhorn may have saved the life of a fellow juror. They know she gave aid and that Ramirez didn't. At the very least, they're going to look with high favor on her testimony. They may even hold it against Ramirez that he didn't tend to her," Brinkmann said.

William Tapella, the Mattoon attorney for the Shambos, disagreed that Steinhorn's actions warranted a mistrial and reminded the judge that on his own, he ordered Steinhorn, who was closest to the juror, to get off the stand to see if she could help her.

Jones denied Brinkmann's request, put an alternate in the ailing juror's place, and Steinhorn continued with her testimony until about 5:30 p.m.

But Wednesday morning, Jones said he grappled with his decision all night, researched it and found a similar Illinois Supreme Court case in which a doctor who was a defendant rendered aid to a juror. The high court in that case found that the trial judge erred in not declaring a mistrial.

In delivering his ruling, a clearly pained Jones, said the "ultimate disaster" for all parties involved would be "for me to get it wrong and the Shambos or Dr. Ramirez or Provena to be elated with the ultimate outcome and then 12 to 14 months later say, 'I'm sorry. We're starting from square one because the judge made a mistake.'"

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