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Senator's bill seeks damages for judge

The claims bill alleges a 1999 back surgery gone awry caused the local judge to become blind.

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 17, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph G. Donahey Jr. would collect $1-million in damages from the University of South Florida under a claims bill filed by a state senator.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, filed the bill for Donahey, who has been blind since he had back surgery at Tampa General Hospital in 1999.

The bill alleges that Dr. David W. Cahill, a USF professor, performed the surgery using an assistant and an anesthesiologist who were residents and not adequately supervised. Surgery that was supposed to last 41/2 hours took more than 10 hours.

The doctor should have known that the prolonged period during which Donahey's blood pressure was kept at a minimal level could result in blindness, the bill says. Medical experts believe the effect was to starve the optic nerve of oxygen.

Donahey and his wife, Tena, filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Regents, which oversaw the state university system. They declined an offer of $100,000, the maximum a state agency can pay in a civil lawsuit without legislative action. The state gave the couple a waiver allowing them to take their case directly to the Legislature.

A spokeswoman at the USF Medical School did not respond to a request for comment.

Donahey, 68, is retiring Jan. 7 and is uncertain what he will do after that. He said he did not seek re-election because he would be able to serve just 15 months before he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Donahey said he decided to pursue the claims bill "with mixed feelings."

"I've never asked anybody for anything, but when faced with the statutory immunity and all of the repercussions that have occurred and continue to occur . . ." Donahey said.

He said he has no hope of recovering his vision and has pursued computer training and other instruction in an attempt to cope with blindness. He relies primarily on a computer program that reads documents to him for most of his court paperwork.

Donahey said he would like to teach forensics, helping lawyers prepare for trial, or sit as a senior judge. If he collects damages, he said he may hire a driver.

Donahey, a longtime Clearwater defense lawyer, was appointed to the bench in 1995 by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

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