Man's pain justifies $117M, lawyer says

Allan Navarro sued after his stroke was wrongly diagnosed as sinusitis in a UCH emergency room.

Published October 3, 2006

TAMPA - Anybody questioning Allan Navarro's right to a nearly $117-million jury verdict need look no further than the man himself, his attorneys said Monday.

Navarro, 50, once displayed his athletic prowess as a pro basketball player in the Philippines. He now is in danger of suffocating every time he swallows food because emergency room doctors misdiagnosed his stroke for a headache.

"Let someone come and use this as a poster boy of tort reform," attorney Steve Yerrid said Monday. "And I would love to show them a picture of Allan Navarro."

On Friday, a jury awarded the verdict - which Yerrid called the largest ever in Florida - for past and future medical expenses, lost earning ability and pain and suffering.

Jurors will reconvene today to decide whether the emergency room doctors who treated Navarro should be on the hook for punitive damages as well.

Navarro had lived in the United States just four years when he went to the University Community Hospital Carrollwood emergency room on Aug. 9, 2000, complaining of nausea, headache, dizziness and double vision.

He told a nurse that he had a family history of strokes.

Five hours later, the attending emergency physician on duty, Dr. Michael Austin, discharged Navarro with a painkiller prescription and a diagnosis of sinusitis and a headache.

The following morning, Navarro returned to the hospital with more serious symptoms, according to his lawsuit.

By that afternoon, he underwent surgery to relieve brain swelling. After a month in the hospital and about three months in a coma, Navarro emerged from the coma permanently and totally disabled, his attorneys said.

Before his illness, he had been working as a machine operator, earning just over minimum wage.

During the three-week trial that ended Friday, Dr. Austin testified that the man who performed Navarro's initial physical exam was an unlicensed physician's assistant.

University Community Hospital was not named in the lawsuit; its emergency care is contracted out to a physician group. Hospital spokesman Steve Ramsour said a different physician group now provides the emergency care.

Navarro's case was filed prior to new Florida laws that cap pain and suffering damages, which doctors said were needed to prevent frivolous lawsuits that increase their insurance premiums.

His attorneys, Yerrid, Rich Gilbert and David Dickey, said they tried to settle with the doctors' insurance company within their policy limits but were turned down.

A few weeks before trial, Yerrid said, the insurance company offered to settle for $300.

In a separate pending suit, ProNational Insurance Company claims it has no duty to defend Austin because the doctor breached his contract with the company.

The doctors' attorneys likely will file a motion asking Circuit Judge Gregory Holder to reduce the verdict. If Holder denies the motion, they then can seek relief with the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Included in the $116.7-million verdict are $9-million for past pain and suffering, $15-million for future medical expenses and $37-million for future pain and suffering.

The jury also awarded $52.5-million in damages to Navarro's wife and $1.5-million to his 10-year-old son.

Navarro's attorneys said the jury award is justified.

"He's a prisoner in his own body," Yerrid said. "This is not a large verdict when you talk about a loss of life as we know it or we would accept it."

The attorneys wouldn't say how much they will request today in punitive damages.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.