A federal jury in Minneapolis has awarded a college student more than $111 million in damages — possibly the largest award of its kind in Minnesota history — after finding that negligent care of his injured leg after surgery led to extreme pain and permanent disability.
The jury reached its verdict Monday in favor of the medical malpractice suit brought in 2019 by 25-year-old Anuj Thapa against St. Cloud Orthopedic Associates in Sartell, Minn.
Thapa was injured in January 2017 when another soccer player tackled him during a pickup match at St. Cloud State University. He was taken by ambulance to CentraCare's St. Cloud Hospital, where Dr. Chad Holien was on call. Holien performed surgery on Thapa's badly broken left leg that night.
The lawsuit contended that complications persisted into the next morning, among them uncontrollable pain, numbness, burning and muscle problems. Thapa was discharged late that afternoon only to return six days later as the pain became unbearable, the suit continued.
A different doctor operated on the leg that day and discovered that Thapa had "acute compartment syndrome," which is considered a medical emergency that occurs when excess pressure builds in a group of muscles.
Since the first operation, according to trial testimony, Thapa has had at least a dozen surgeries performed on his leg "and has been left with severe, disabling, permanent damage" to his left leg.
Thapa's attorney, Brandon Thompson, said his client will always have difficulty walking, has nagging knee problems and is "probably going to have to have hip surgery down the road."
Thompson said Thapa "is going to be living with this for the rest of his life. And his life expectancy is another 52 years." Thapa has since moved to the Los Angeles area, where the weather is more kind to his damaged leg, while he continues attending St. Cloud State remotely.
Speaking for St. Cloud Orthopedics, defense attorney Steven Schwegman said in a statement, "We maintain the care provided in this case was in accordance with accepted standards of care. The case was about the alleged delay in diagnosing and treating a complication of the surgery that was performed."
As for appealing the jury's findings, Schwegman said, "St. Cloud Orthopedics continues to support its providers. We are evaluating our options regarding this verdict."
Thapa's injury came less than three weeks after he arrived from his native Nepal, where he grew up on a farm that doesn't have heat, Thompson said. He came to the United States "with the hopes and dreams of his entire family. He wanted to be a mechanical engineer."
Thompson said that to the best of his knowledge, "this is the biggest medical malpractice and personal injury verdict in Minnesota by a lot."
In 2002, a Chaska man whose head was crushed by machinery at work in Shakopee was awarded $35.3 million by a Hennepin County jury in what his attorneys believed at the time was a record personal-injury verdict for Minnesota. Gary Forde, 35, sued the California-based Geo. M. Martin Co. after he suffered permanent brain damage.
"Sounds like a record to me," Michael Snyder, one of the attorneys who represented Forde, said Thursday. "I hope it withstands any appeal."
Six months ago, federal jurors awarded a Twin Cities doctor nearly $25 million after an emergency medical provider failed to fly him back to the United States after a ziplining injury in Mexico that led to a leg amputation. They found that New Jersey-based Assist America failed to bring Richard H. Tholenof Plymouth back from Mazatlán in April 2015, after he complained about care he received from a local hospital for his dislocated knee.
At the heart of Thapa's argument, the suit alleged, "the defendants departed from accepted standards of medical practice in providing care and treatment to Mr. Thapa. These departures include, but are not limited to, the failure to appropriately evaluate Mr. Thapa's [postoperational] symptoms, the failure to appropriately diagnose and treat Mr. Thapa's acute compartment syndrome, and the failure to appropriately discharge Mr. Thapa."
Failing to maintain "accepted standards of medical practice played a substantial role in bringing about Mr. Thapa's severe, permanent, and disabling injuries."
Thompson said Holien and physician's assistant William Paschke gave Thapa inadequate follow-up attention, despite nurses on duty raising concerns about his severe pain.
"There's no doubt they are good health care providers," Thompson said of Holien and Paschke. "But it was the decisions they made about one person, and mistakes were made."
Thompson said Holien and Paschke were not named as defendants "because of the way the [malpractice] insurance works. [St. Cloud] Orthopedics is legally responsible for the actions of their employees."
After the weeklong trial, the jurors came back with their verdict against the defendants. Specifically, Thapa is to receive $100 million for future "pain, disability, disfigurement, embarrassment and emotional distress," $10 million for the same suffering in the past, and more than $1 million for past and future medical expenses.
Thompson said the defendants never pursued an out-of-court settlement.
"They made it clear that there was no intention to offer any money to resolve this case," Thompson said.
Thapa learned of the verdict and award total in a phone call from his attorney.
"He asked me to repeat the number," Thompson recalled. "In his understated way, and in his very excellent English, he said, 'Wow, that's big, huh?'"