Mistrial ruled in Hinson trial

Published 2:11 pm Monday, August 31, 2009

A civil jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the trial involving the widow of the late John G. Hinson and Memorial Hospital, resulting in a mistrial.

Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason declared a mistrial when the jury returned from lunch at around 1:30 Friday afternoon, said Bruce Kirbo Jr., one of the attorneys representing Shelly Hinson, Hinson’s widow, against Memorial Hospital and Dr. Paul J. Bennett in a wrongful death lawsuit.

According to Kirbo, the jury—which had been deliberating since 2:45 p.m. Wednesday—presented Judge Chason with a note saying 11 jurors were in favor of Hinson and one was in favor of Memorial Hospital, where Hinson died unexpectedly on June 12, 2007, after being admitted for kidney stones.

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“Before the lunch break, one of the jurors gave the judge a note stating that he was the only person for the hospital, and that he wasn’t going to change his mind,” Kirbo said Friday.

“Each side will now decide whether to file any motions regarding the judge’s rulings,” Kirbo said. “The plaintiff [Hinson] will prepare to re-try the case during the next term of court.”

Hinson and the hospital could also opt to settle the case out of court. The lead attorney for the hospital, Joseph P. Durham of Albany, Ga., of the law firm Langley and Lee, declined to comment on the case as it was still technically ongoing.

The former principal at the Bainbridge High School-Performance Learning Center, Hinson was a well-liked educator. He left behind three young children and his wife, who has also worked as a local teacher. Mr. Hinson had also served as the attendance director for Decatur County schools.

The trial, which began last Tuesday, Aug. 18, largely centered around the medical care received by Mr. Hinson in the last few hours of his life. A lab technician found Mr. Hinson unresponsive and cyanotic at 4 a.m. on June 12, 2007. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

After releasing Hinson’s body to Ivey Funeral Home later that day, Mrs. Hinson decided to request an autopsy on June 13. The autopsy, conducted by the Southwestern Crime Laboratory, uncovered that Mr. Hinson’s esophagus and stomach were significantly filled with his vomit. It also showed that Mr. Hinson was in an advanced state of congenital heart disease, including arterial congestion and an abnormally large heart.

The initial autopsy stated heart failure had caused Hinson’s death; however, Coroner Peter Bruton requested an additional examination, a medical examiner ruled the death inconclusive, stating it was unknown what effect the painkillers had on Mr. Hinson.

Cause of death

Central to the trial was the cause of Mr. Hinson’s death. Mrs. Hinson and her attorneys alleged it was caused by an overdose of Dilaudid, or hydromorphone, a powerful opioid pain reliever. However, because the body was embalmed, the doctors who examined his body were unable to do a toxicology report that would have more accurately indicated the levels of medication in his body when he died. Dilaudid, which is closely related to morphine, can have powerful effects on the human body, including fatal respiratory depression and vomiting, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Agency.

Attorneys for the hospital contended the initial autopsy was correct. They noted that Hinson’s father, the late Ron Hinson, had died in his 50s after suffering his third heart attack. They also noted the medical examiner’s belief that Mr. Hinson’s heart condition was so severe, that his immediate relatives should have genetic tests done to see whether they would be at risk for future heart problems.

In their closing arguments, hospital’s lawyers alleged that Mr. Hinson was not taking his heart medications as he was supposed to, was obese and had been secretly taking Darvocet, another narcotic pain reliever, during his 14 hours at the hospital. Trace amounts of Darvocet and Demerol were found in Hinson’s body, according to the medical examiner.

Another issue concerned whether Dr. Bennett and the hospital properly administered pain medication to Hinson and whether they followed accepted procedures for monitoring patients.

A nurse, Sherry Yates, had testified she had replaced Hinson’s intraveneous (IV) push, which contained the pain medicine Dilaudid, as he slept, without noting any issues.

The plaintiff, Mrs. Hinson, had alleged Yates inappropriately modified Mr. Hinson’s medical charts on a computer following his death; Yates replied that she had done so because a supervisor had noted she had failed to document giving a dosage of Dilaudid.

Another nurse testified that she had come in after and seen that the IV pouch was almost full. The hospital’s attorneys, including Durham, argued that had Mr. Hinson been suffering from respiratory depression, as was alleged by his surviving wife, that nurses would have noticed it.

Memorial’s lawyers stated the condition is defined by someone breathing less than eight breaths per minute, instead of the average of 20, and noted testimony by medical experts for the defense who stated it would be most likely to occur within 10-15 minutes after the Dilaudid was first administered.

Durham stated hospital nurses had interacted with Mr. Hinson on a regular basis that night and had monitored him closely after the IV was first given.

Dr. Bennett had ordered the IV push for Hinson after he complained that he was in severe pain from the kidney stones and unable to get any rest, even after other pain medicine was given to him. A registered nurse, Tommy Joiner, had testified that he had directed a concern that Hinson was unable to get relief even after pain medicine was administered.

Other testimony came from a nurse at a North Carolina hospital who was a close friend of Mrs. Hinson, who stated she did not believe Memorial’s nurses had appropriately monitored Hinson, who was not hooked up to advanced vital signs equipment, to prevent an adverse event. The plantiff’s attorneys also uncovered a memo distributed within Memorial Hospital a short time before Mr. Hinson became ill that detailed the appropriate dosing recommendations for Dilaudid.

According a prior motion filed by Hinson’s lawyers: “In the June 5, 2007, Dilaudid Memo, the routine dosing guidelines call for Dilaudid .5 to 1 milligram IV every three hour PRN (when necessary) pain. Prior to John’s death, Bennett issued an order that called for John to receive Dilaudid 3 milligrams IV every hour PRN pain.” Hinson, at the order of Dr. Bennett, had received six 2-milligram dosages of Dilaudid by IV and at 3-milligram by IV five additional times, for a total of 28.5 mg. He was also given the sleep medication Ambien and the anti-inflammatory pain medicine Toradol, as well as Phenergan, an antihistamine that can be used to treat nausea and vomiting, or as a sleep aid.

During the trial, the defense presented testimony from a medical expert who suggested that Hinson had a tolerance to opioid/opiate drugs, which would have lessened the effectiveness of the Dilauid and at the same time, reduced or prevented its worst side effects.

Brennan Leathers can be reached by e-mail at brennan.leathers@thepostsearchlight.com, or by telephone at (229) 246-2827, Ext. 115.