Local News

Thursday, Nov 15 2012 09:58 PM

Harb civil trial begins, with millions of dollars at stake

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dr. Mohamad Harb waits in the hallway with his caregiver JJ Knight, left, Thursday afternoon in Kern County Superior Court. Harb was expected to testify in court.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dr. Mohamad Harb waits to testify in his lawsuit case Thursday with his caregiver JJ Knight outside the courtroom.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

A jury got down to business Thursday as attorneys gave their opening statements in a complicated civil trial involving a local doctor who suffered a stroke resulting in permanent brain damage.

With a whopping 87 witnesses -- many with conflicting statements -- expected to testify over the next four weeks, jurors will surely have their work cut out for them.

"We are going to be asking you for a verdict in this case," Thomas Brill, an attorney representing the family of Dr. Mohamad Harb, told the jury. "We're going to be asking you for a verdict of $25 million."

The seeds of the case were planted in November 2007, almost exactly five years ago, when Harb, now 62, suffered a stroke apparently while driving his car after a day of work at the neonatal intensive care unit at Kern Medical Center.

After veering off of 24th Street, just west of Oak Street, urinating in the roadway and behaving erratically, Harb was handcuffed by police and allegedly denied immediate transport to a hospital emergency room because officers thought he was drunk or on drugs.

The Harb family later sued the city of Bakersfield, Hall Ambulance, former Bakersfield police officer Claudia Payne and some Hall Ambulance employees.

On Thursday, after five days of jury selection, the three main attorneys summarized their arguments before the newly sworn jurors and Kern County Superior Court Judge J. Eric Bradshaw.

Brill said the evidence will show that Payne refused to let Hall Ambulance paramedic Brian Dumont take the confused and critically ill Harb to the hospital even though he told Payne that Harb may have suffered a stroke.

It wasn't until Dumont left and a second ambulance was summoned that Harb was taken to the hospital.

The plaintiffs will also argue that, despite alleged resistance from police, Dumont had a sacred responsibility under the law to provide medical care to Harb -- and by leaving the scene without Harb, he abdicated that responsibility.

Mick Marderosian, representing the city and Payne, said the evidence will show that Payne's actions that day were those of a competent law enforcement officer just doing her job.

"Every step she took was the right step, the evidence will show," Marderosian said.

Medical records will show, he added, that Harb had suffered a prior stroke, that he wasn't taking his medication against the advice of his personal physician and that the nature of his hemorrhagic stroke in 2007 was so severe that the damage to Harb's brain was inevitable, even if his care was delayed.

Marderosian also said there's reason to believe that Harb began suffering stroke symptoms before he left work at KMC -- the very place that could have saved him from the unfortunate situation in which he now finds himself.

"The city of Bakersfield is not responsible for the unfortunate circumstances that occurred in this case," he told the jury.

Adding to the complexity of the lawsuit is the triangle of legal interests involved. At the third point of the triangle is defendant Hall Ambulance, represented by attorney Jim Braze.

Braze kept his opening remarks short Thursday, while emphasizing to jurors that Dumont was at the scene for just 10 minutes.

"That's the entire case against Hall Ambulance: that 10 minutes," Braze said.

Referring back to Brill's opening statement, Braze suggested that as the officer in charge at the scene on 24th Street, Payne made it impossible for Dumont to place Harb on a gurney and rush him to the emergency room.

"Mr. Brill suggested Brian Dumont abandoned his patient," Braze told the jury. "He was not his patient. He was a prisoner."

As the trial's first witness Thursday, Dumont testified that when he examined Harb, his vital signs were all within or close to within the normal range. But he was acting confused, and in the absence of evidence of any alcohol or drug use, Dumont said it was important to get Harb to the hospital.

"I believed there was a possibility that Dr. Harb might be suffering from a stroke," he testified. And he communicated that concern to Payne, he said.

When he asked that Harb's handcuffs be removed so he could conduct an "arm drift test," a neurological test that may indicate stroke, Dumont said police refused.

But Payne has a different recollection from that November evening, Marderosian said in his opening: She will testify that Dumont indicated there was nothing medically wrong with Harb.

The shortest testimony Thursday came from Dr. Harb himself. Perched in his wheelchair, it soon became painfully clear to everyone in the room that the vital, intelligent neonatal specialist and father of four had been forever changed by the stroke. When asked what day it was, the now frail-looking Harb answered, "October."

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