Crime and Justice

Jury finds no medical malpractice in Brattleboro childbirth that turned fatal

The entrance and emergency department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

A jury has dismissed claims that three obstetric care providers with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital were liable in a 2015 birth that turned fatal.

Following a 10-day civil trial, a Windham County jury ruled Tuesday that Dr. Ellen Paquin, certified nurse-midwife Heather Ferreira and registered nurse Margaret Bonifer were not liable for medical negligence, wrongful death or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Because the jury didn’t find medical negligence, it didn’t have to assess whether the hospital held any corporate liability, court records show.

The plaintiffs — Brattleboro residents Jessica Mayotte and her husband Adam — alleged they suffered injuries because the providers failed to uphold the standard of care in the birth of their son, Michael.

Mayotte, who is paraplegic and was described by one of her lawyers as having almost no sensation below her belly button, visited the hospital on March 23, 2015, after feeling contractions and experiencing bleeding. She was checked, discharged and told to return, if needed, before her March 25 appointment. She went home and fell asleep, according to the couple’s complaint.

The next day she woke up “horrified” to see her newborn son lying next to her on the bed, appearing lifeless, the document states.

Michael was rushed to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, where the baby was soon pronounced dead.

An attorney for the defendants said during the trial that Michael’s death was the result of the “unpredictability of medicine.” Brattleboro Memorial had referred Mayotte to an expert in paraplegic pregnancies, who believed she would feel the sensations of labor.

That Mayotte ultimately did not feel her contractions in her sleep was unexpected, the attorney had said.

In cases of medical negligence, the standard of care refers to the minimum quality of treatment a physician, or other medical provider, is reasonably expected to give. 

Before jurors began deliberating at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, they were instructed that the burden of proof lay with the plaintiffs, who needed to prove all of the facts essential to their claims by a preponderance of the evidence. Jurors reached a unanimous verdict shortly before 5 p.m. that day, court records show.

When asked for comment about the verdict, Brattleboro Memorial’s chief medical officer, Kathleen McGraw, said: “The loss of a newborn child brings a sorrow that is deeply felt by both the parents and their caregivers. We share in the heartbreak of the Mayotte family and hope that each individual affected by this tragic event will reach a place of healing.”

Attorneys for the Mayottes couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

Superior Court Judge Katherine Hayes presided over the trial.

There’s quite a high bar to prove medical negligence, according to Jerry O’Neill, former U.S. attorney in Vermont and a Burlington attorney who handled such cases for decades.

“Medical negligence cases are about the hardest cases there are everywhere,” he said.

O’Neill cited several reasons for this. People are empathetic to doctors who are viewed as working to the best of their ability. Medical malpractice insurance companies settle the cases they believe will lose in court, so those that reach trial tend to be the most difficult ones.

Medical negligence trials, involving expert witnesses, also are generally highly technical, which can have an effect on the jury.

“If the jury can't make up its mind which expert testimony it accepts, it's going to go ahead and find in favor of the provider,” O’Neill said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong day for when the jury made its decision.

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Tiffany Tan

About Tiffany

Tiffany Tan is VTDigger's Southern Vermont reporter. Before joining VTDigger, she covered cops and courts for the Bennington Banner from 2018 to 2021. Prior to that, Tiffany worked for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota and spent more than 10 years working for newspapers and television stations in Manila, Singapore and Beijing.

Email: ttan@vtdigger.org

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