Pennsylvania veteran awarded $3.7 M in suit against VA

Suit alleged flawed care by VA hospital for stress disorder

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When Stanley Laskowski, a combat veteran of the war in Iraq, dressed himself from head to toe in black and broke into a pharmacy in Scranton, Pa., to steal drugs in summer 2007, it had been four months since he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Wilkes-Barre Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The charges stemming from that incident were dropped and purged from his record and a federal judge last week awarded Mr. Laskowski and his wife $3.7 million in the medical malpractice suit they filed afterwards. The lack of appropriate care given to Mr. Laskowski at the VA hospital for those few months led to the break-in, his decline and his now permanently-disabled status, the judge ruled.

"Here, not only did the VA not provide proper PTSD treatment, but they administered a medication that would result in self-medication with an addictive substance," U.S. District Judge James Munley of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said in Laskowski v. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Judge Munley emphasized that his opinion narrowly applies to this case. "We do not intend this decision to be a sweeping criticism of the defendant's treatment of veterans with PTSD," he said. "Rather, this case is very fact-specific and we can make no comment on the defendant's treatment of any other patients."

The judge found that, over the course of roughly four months, Mr. Laskowski and his wife reached out to the VA hospital 10 times, but Mr. Laskowski was never seen by a physician and was prescribed the wrong medications.

Therefore, Mr. Laskowski satisfied the state law requirements for proving medical malpractice for the case brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Mr. Munley issued his opinion Wednesday, following a seven-day nonjury trial held last fall.

After he was honorably discharged in February 2007 from the Marine Corps, where he had reached the rank of sergeant, Mr. Laskowski sought help from the VA hospital and began working as a financial adviser for Keystone Financial. He was fired after burglarizing the pharmacy, according to the opinion.

"If plaintiff's condition had not gotten worse but had remained the same as when he presented himself to the defendant, he would have continued to function normally and work," Judge Munley said. "Unfortunately, however, defendant's actions did cause plaintiff's condition to worsen."

The judge rejected the government's argument that Mr. Laskowski's negligence contributed to his deteriorated condition. The government had argued that Mr. Laskowski's alcohol and drug use combined with his failure to alert medical staff about the use should count toward a reduction in the damages that the government owes, according to the opinion.

Judge Munley wasn't convinced. "The testimony at trial revealed that plaintiff was initially a good patient and actively seeking help from the VA. The VA did not provide the help and medical treatment needed by the plaintiff, and as a result, plaintiff began self-medicating with alcohol and illegal drugs," he said.

The judge awarded Mr. Laskowski $214,582 for past lost earnings; $2.1 million for future lost earnings; $500,000 for past noneconomic damages, including pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation and loss of the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life; and $700,000 for future noneconomic damages.

He awarded Mr. Laskowski's wife, Marisol Laskowski, $140,615 for loss of consortium.

"The plaintiffs got justice in this case," said their lawyer, Daniel Brier, of Myers, Brier & Kelly in Scranton. The verdict is appropriate, he said, adding, "This case is about protecting our protectors."

George Michael Thiel, of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Scranton, represented the government and declined to comment on the case, citing office policy.

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Saranac Hale Spencer: sspencer@alm.com or 215-557-2449. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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