The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 23, 2013

Jury rules in favor of Geisinger in malpractice lawsuit

By Karen Blackledge
The Daily Item

— DANVILLE — A Montour County jury deliberated for about two hours Monday to find a Geisinger Medical Center doctor and the medical center not negligent in the case of a man who died five days after surgery for prostate cancer.

The jury began deliberating at 10:43 a.m. and reached its verdict at 12:20 p.m., according to court officials.

The trial started Wednesday before Judge Gary Norton.

Elizabeth L. Schoppy sued Dr. Daniel Rukstalis and the medical center. Dr. Sally Ferguson-Avery was removed as a defendant last week. At the time the suit was filed, Schoppy lived in Marion Heights.

Her husband, Phillip A. Schoppy, 65, died April 20, 2009. In the suit, she alleged he died from a pulmonary embolus.

In closing arguments, attorney Stephen Ryan, representing Geisinger and Rukstalis, told the jury it had to decide if Rukstalis’s plan in treating Mr. Schoppy was reasonable. “This is a tragedy. The Schoppy family is devastated by this loss. You need to decide whether Dr. Rukstalis was negligent,” he said.

Rukstalis spent two years working on cancer research funded by a grant and has trained and taught doctors in new techniques for urologists to develop and improve patient care, Ryan said. “There is no reason to think he wouldn’t have used that knowledge in the care of his own patients,” he said. While cancer has been known to cause clots, Ryan said Schoppy was walking around after surgery and found to be a little short of breath. A resident was called to use a machine to expand and check Schoppy’s lungs again. “That isn’t the way a pulmonary embolism works,” Ryan said.

He said Schoppy had two prior episodes of clotting.

James Beasley, representing Mrs. Schoppy, said Mr. Schoppy wanted to be cured of prostate cancer. Schoppy had been a Geisinger patient since the 1970s.

Using the analogy of following the rules of the road, he said best practices of the American Urological Association in 2009 stated if a patient such as Schoppy has a propensity to throw a clot as Schoppy did and was considered to be a high-risk in throwing a clot, the jury needed to consider if Rukstalis complied with what his own organization said. Beasley said the association recommended a filter to make sure clots wouldn’t form in the lungs.

He showed Schoppy’s death certificate listing the cause of death as clots formed, which went to the lungs.

Beasley told the jury they had to look at burden of proof. “If it tips ever so slightly, the Schoppy family has to win,” he said.

The Schoppys had been married since 1966. “Her best friend was Phil — he was everything to her and to their children,” Beasley said.

He thanked the jurors for serving. “Without you, these types of situations never would get resolved,” he said.

Before giving his closing, Ryan said he was grateful for the attention jurors paid during the trial. “It’s not an easy task to make sense out of all of it,” he said.

He said it was a pleasure to try a case in Montour County with the court staff making the lawyers and the parties “feel equal in the eyes of the law.”

“I have tried many cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Florida and this is the only county where they start every day with The Pledge of Allegiance. You’ve got a special county here and should be proud of it,” he said.