Local News

Wednesday, Dec 12 2012 03:53 PM

City, Hall Ambulance win suit brought by disabled doctor

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Attorney Steve Nichols speaks with Mrs. Fatima Harb at the conclusion of the civil trial in Kern County Superior Court after a jury found in favor of the City and Hall Ambulance late Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Jury forewoman Dawn Henderson speaks to the media after the jury found in favor of the city of Bakersfield and Hall Ambulance Wednesday in the negligence suit brought against them by the family of disabled doctor Mohamad Harb in Kern County Superior Court.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Former Bakersfield Police Officer Claudia Payne speaks with supporters and jury members after the civil trial in Kern County Superior Court on Wednesday.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Attorney Mick Marderosian speaks with the media at the conclusion of the civil trial in Kern County Superior Court on Wednesday.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

A jury has sided with the city of Bakersfield and Hall Ambulance in a $25 million lawsuit alleging police and emergency medical workers failed to quickly transport a Bakersfield physician to the hospital after he suffered a stroke and crashed his car in 2007.

After only about six hours of deliberations, the nine women and three men on the Kern County Superior Court jury unanimously found that police and the city were not negligent, and that a Hall Ambulance paramedic and his employer were not grossly negligent, when a delay occurred in transporting Dr. Mohamad Harb to the emergency room.

Once those two questions were answered in the negative, the jury had no need to concern themselves with other questions about causation and monetary awards.

Although an appeal is possible, as it stands now, the Harb family will receive no financial compensation for past and future lost earnings, out-of-pocket expenses or pain and suffering.

"We spoke. We shared our opinions," jury forewoman Dawn Hendersen said of the deliberations.

"But in the end," she added, "we had to follow what the law says."

Hendersen, near tears for a few moments during her interview, said she can't imagine the suffering the Harb family has been through.

"I think everyone on the jury feels nothing but sympathy for her," she said, referring to Fatima Harb, Dr. Harb's wife, who was in the courtroom each day of the weeks-long civil trial.

"But sympathy," Hendersen said, "is not allowed to be part of the verdict."

The jurors, many taking notes, listened to weeks of complex medical testimony, the contradictory opinions of expert witnesses and disputed versions of key events.

Mrs. Harb seemed stunned by the outcome. She and her family's attorneys declined to comment following the verdict.

The burden of proof had been on lawyers for 62-year-old Harb, who suffered a ruptured blood vessel in his brain while driving on Nov. 24, 2007. But that burden is less severe in civil cases than in criminal trials.

Mick Marderosian, the attorney who represented the city, the Bakersfield Police Department and former Bakersfield police officer Claudia Payne, said he believes the verdict shows that the justice system works.

The jury's decision goes down to "the fact that officer Payne did her job," he said.

"I thought the plaintiff's lawyers did a good job in this case," he said.

"It's not a matter that (convincing evidence) wasn't presented," he said. "It's that it didn't exist."

Like Hendersen, Marderosian expressed sympathy for the Harb family. But to ask the city and Hall to compensate the family for what it has suffered is wrong, he said.

"This was just an unfortunate event that occurred," Marderosian said. "This was an unfortunate event wrapped in emotion."

The seeds of the trial were planted on that November evening five years ago, when after a full day of work at Kern Medical Center's pediatric intensive care unit, Harb's Mercedes came to rest at the right side of 24th Street, near Oak Street, flattening a tire against the curb.

First on the scene was Payne. Harb had urinated on the sidewalk and vomited on his shirt -- and with the help of other officers who arrived soon after Payne, the confused physician was handcuffed. Harb was given one, or possibly two, alcohol breath tests, which registered zero.

But testimony indicated that police suspected Harb was intoxicated.

Brain scans later showed Harb had suffered a life-threatening bleed in the brain, but the first Hall Ambulance crew called to the scene, headed by co-defendant Brian Dumont, departed without him, leaving Harb sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind his back.

But Marderosian argued that the burden of proof hadn't been met by the plaintiffs.

"They are asking you to guess, " he told the jury.

Harb attorney Thomas Brill argued in his closing statement Tuesday that Payne was negligent, that she insisted she would transport Harb herself.

But testimony showing Harb had not been taking his blood pressure medication -- despite obvious warning signs and a troubling family health history -- was introduced by the defense.

Jim Braze, the attorney representing Hall Ambulance and Dumont, said outside the courtroom Wednesday that the case has been a "long haul," but that he was pleased by the outcome.

"There was so much emotion in the courtroom ..." he said. "Fortunately, they seemed to be a very intelligent jury."

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