Jury awards Charleston father, son $24 million in negligence lawsuit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A North Carolina jury has awarded a Charleston father and son more than $24 million after deciding a hospital was negligent when it failed to take action after the boy came into the facility with signs of abuse.
The verdict was handed down Tuesday, ordering Cumberland County Healthcare System to pay Ajamu Gaines, 33, and his 14-year-old son, Ajamu Gaines Jr. $24.8 million, said Charleston lawyer Tim DiPiero, who helped represent the family.
Lawyers Cale Connelly and Richard Griggs of Atlanta and Bill Britt of Lumberton, N.C., also represented the family.
The case was originally filed in 2005 but after several appeals from both sides, the final trial began on Aug. 22, 2011. Testimony took six weeks, and the jury deliberated four days, DiPiero said.
"This was all over a hospital's policy," DiPiero said. "A young boy came in with signs of abuse and it was part of their policy that they were supposed to screen for those things.
"Then once they found them, they were supposed to turn those findings over to social services. That wasn't done."
The boy was 6 years old on April 15, 2003, when he was taken to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center near Fayetteville with a broken wrist, according to court records.
He was living with his mother, Wyenda Phelps, and her boyfriend, Johnny Kegler, near Fayetteville, N.C. Hospital staff members were told he had fallen or jumped from a porch.
It was determined he would need surgery to repair the broken bone, and he was taken to the operating room, where he vomited. Doctors performed a chest X-ray to rule out aspiration pneumonia and found an old rib fracture but his chest was otherwise clear.
The boy vomited again during surgery and another chest X-ray was done but indicated no further problems. He was then sent back to his mother's home.
Ajamu returned to the hospital with a severe head injury only 11 weeks later, on July 3.
According to court records, doctors were told he had been eating ice cream when he began shaking on the floor. Doctors also were told he had hit his head when he jumped or fell from a counter the week before.
Dr. Sharon Cooper, a forensic pediatrician at the hospital, went over the boy's records a week later and suspected abuse, according to documents.
She reported her findings to the North Carolina Department of Social Services, which then conducted an investigation. The department found Ajamu's injuries were the result of abuse at the hands of Kegler.
Ajamu suffered a subdural hematoma and fractured skull, DiPiero said. The boy has not been able to walk or talk since the second incident and is considered a spastic quadriplegic.
Kegler was arrested and convicted of misdemeanor abuse, DiPiero said. Ajamu was removed from his mother's custody and sent to live with his father in Charleston.
Ajamu Gaines Sr. was an All-American basketball player at the University of Charleston in 2000. He has devoted the last eight years to caring for his son, DiPiero said.
DiPiero called Cooper a hero for reporting the abuse. She testified for three days during the trial.
"She reported the abuse long before any lawyers were involved," DiPiero said. "It took a lot of courage for her to tell what she believed."
The Charleston lawyer said the family would use the money to get Ajamu the therapy he needs and provide him with a better home. Ajamu Jr. was awarded $20 million and his father, $4.8 million.
DiPiero said attorney fees in the case are confidential.
"We've never seen a judge be so careful and patient and kind," he said. "The jury was incredibly involved with the case. We could tell they were engaged from the get-go."
DiPiero said the litigation process has been an "emotional" and "unbelievable" experience for all parties involved.
"You couldn't imagine; we were all emotional for 'Man-man' (Ajamu Jr.)," DiPiero said. "He's a special kid with an endearing spirit about him. He's a real fighter, and it's a great victory for him and his family."
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4850.