SCRANTON – A federal judge on Wednesday awarded $3.7 million to an Iraqi war veteran who alleged the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Township failed to properly treat his post traumatic stress disorder.
U.S. District Judge James Munley ruled the medical center had breached the standard of care in treating Marine Sgt. Stanley Laskowski, but stressed his finding was specific to this case and should not be treated as a sweeping criticism of the care provided to veterans.
Laskowski and his wife, Marisol, of Carbondale, filed suit against the VA in 2010, alleging physicians were grossly negligent in the care they provided him for PTSD he developed after he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003.
Munley heard the case during a one-week, non-jury trial in September. The verdict was delayed as the judge reviewed the transcript and legal briefs filed by attorneys.
The judge awarded Stanley Laskowski $2,359,385 for past and future lost earnings and $1,200,000 in past and future emotional suffering. He awarded Marisol Laskowski $140,615 to compensate her for loss of companionship of her husband.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a mental condition that develops in people who have been subjected to emotionally traumatic events. Symptoms include intense nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings and other emotional difficulties.
Laskowski, 34, was treated at the medical center from April to August 2007. At trial, he and his wife testified they repeatedly contacted the VA to tell them his treatment was not helping him.
Despite their pleas, he was never provided any counseling. The VA instead spoke to him by phone and altered his medications.
That caused his symptoms to worsen, leading him to self-medicate with alcohol and prescription painkillers. The situation came to a head in August 2007, when Laskowski broke into a Clarks Summit pharmacy to steal drugs.
Attorneys of the VA acknowledged at trial that medical staff had deviated from the standard of care, but argued Laskowski was partly or wholly responsible because he hid some of his symptoms and did not tell doctors he was using drugs.
In a 69-page opinion, Munley rejected the government's position, saying testimony revealed that Laskowski was initially a good patient who actively sought help from the VA.
The VA did not provide the help and medical treatment needed, Munley said. The fact that the plaintiff self-medicated and failed to inform the medical providers of it was caused by the government's own failure to treat him.
The VA also argued Laskowski's arrest for burglarizing the pharmacy barred him from recovering damages because it would allow him to benefit from his own wrongdoing.
But Munley said the criminal act is irrelevant.
Even if the plaintiff had not committed the crime, he would still have a professional negligence case against the defendant, Munley said.
This case is not the sort of case where the plaintiff seeks to benefit from the commission of a crime.
Laskowski's attorney, Dan Brier, said the verdict is a critical step in the couple's attempts to restore their lives.
We asked and got justice from the court, Brier said.
Brier said he was especially pleased that Munley found Laskowski was not in any way responsible for his injuries.
The court recognized Sgt. Laskowski did everything in his power to seek appropriate medical care, he said. It's extremely important to Stan and Marisol that the court recognized they were not at fault for the VA's failure to treat him.
It could not be determined Wednesday whether the VA will seek to appeal the verdict. Vince Riccardo, spokesman for the medical center, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Brier said he's hopeful the hospital will acknowledge its responsibility and end the case here.
The VA should pay this verdict out of recognition of Sgt. Laskowski's heroic service to his country, Brier said.
He volunteered to go to war to fight the enemy. He should not have to fight the VA.