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Supreme Court upholds decision in baby's death

Monday, December 20, 2004

Trial became a 'classic battle,' but was never about the money

The Iowa Supreme Court Friday upheld a Buena Vista County District Court ruling that a Spencer doctor was not negligent by not calling in an emergency medical team sooner than he did.

Dawn and Pete Hagedorn of Dickins, filing the lawsuit on behalf of their son Bryson who died shortly after birth, asked for a new trial, alleging that Dr. Jeffry Peterson, North Iowa Mercy Health Center, Inc., and Mercy Family Clinic of Spencer should be held responsible for their son's death.

"It's wrong that they killed my baby and they think it's okay," said Dawn Hagedorn after the Supreme Court decision was filed on Friday. "I think the court system is wrong. I think they're spineless. They knew the history of my pregnancy. There are doctors in town that have approached me and said it shouldn't have happened," Hagedorn said.

On March 6, 1999, the mother in her 33rd week of pregnancy started to experience problems, and went to the Spencer hospital, where Dr. Peterson was on call. Court findings say that Peterson did not perform cesarean section births, and hoped Hagedorn could be transported to a Sioux Falls hospital for the operation, But the baby's heart rate suddenly fell, and Peterson called in a surgical team to deliver the baby by cesarean section. It took about 30 minutes for that to take place, and the premature child was transferred to Sioux Falls and died the next evening.

In a jury trial in April and May 2003 the Hagedorns alleged that "had a surgical team been ready, the baby could have been delivered within ten to fifteen minutes instead of over thirty minutes, and the baby's chances of survival would have been good."

In his defense, Dr. Peterson noted that due to limited medical resources in smaller communities like Spencer, "physicians do not call in a surgical team until surgery is actually needed."

The local court case was heard by Judge Frank B. Nelson. The trial proved to be "a classic battle of the experts," with lots of conflicting testimony on the medical reasoning, the high court found.

One defense witness testified that in rural Iowa, a surgical team is rarely assembled on a standby basis, but only when they are to act. "We don't have that many personnel," the witness said.

The jury ruled in favor of Dr. Peterson, finding him not negligent in the tragedy. The Hagedorns filed a motion for a new trial.

The Hagedorns claimed that the jury's verdict "was contrary to the evidence and failed to render substantial justice." The Hagedorns also claimed "error in the trial court's decision to instruct the jury that the locality of the defendant's practice may be considered in determining the applicable standard of care."

In its ruling Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled, "We agree with the trial court that there is sufficient evidence to support the jury's decision that Dr. Peterson was not negligent." The court said further, "We also find no basis to conclude the trial court acted unreasonably or on an untenable basis in refusing to interfere with the jury's decision."

The Iowa high court also upheld the locality rule which states that location of medical facilities should be considered when determining what is "relevant to the appropriateness of the care rendered by the physician to the patient."

Hagedorn said Peterson was the doctor on call because her regular physician was out of town at the time when her pregnancy developed complications.

Hagedorn said a specialist had helped her through another pregnancy and she had another daughter after her son Bryson. "They said pretty much it should never have happened," Hagedorn said.

Hagedorn said her goal in filing the lawsuit was not a monetary settlement.

"It's not about the money," Hagedorn said. "It's about my son. It's to protect other women."

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