A Boston jury has found in favor of Boston Children's Hospital in a malpractice suit brought by the family of a young woman who spent nine months in the hospital's psychiatric ward.
The family of Justina Pelletier had sued the hospital, claiming doctors and administrators were negligent when they separated the then-teenager from her parents.
"The jury’s decision affirms what Boston Children’s Hospital has always believed: that our clinicians provided Justina Pelletier high quality, compassionate care, and always acted in the best interest of her health and well-being," Bethany Tripp, a spokeswoman for Boston Children's Hospital, said in a statement after the verdict was read.
Pelletier attorney Kathy Jo Cook called the verdict "disappointing."
“It's probably less disappointing for me than it is for Justina. She’s a brave, brave little girl,” she said.
Pelletier, who is now 21, broke down in tears on the witness stand describing how she was cut off from her family, treated poorly by hospital staff and allowed only limited contact with her parents.
"I wanted to go home," she told the jury. “They hurt me so much. I kept getting weaker.”
The trial has taken a toll on both the defendants and the plaintiffs. During a break in Pelletier’s testimony, her mother, Linda, embraced her other daughter, Jessica.
“It is the hardest thing,” she said, tears springing to her eyes.
While waiting for the jury’s verdict, Dr. Alice Newton, one of the defendants, said the trial had been a difficult experience.
“More than anything, it’s been isolating,” she said. “I’m glad it’s over.”
Doctors and staff from Children's described a troubled family dynamic that they believed was contributing to Pelletier's health problems. They said they felt compelled to separate the teen from her parents.
“She had multiple diagnoses, a very patchy network of providers, those are all classic red flags," said Dr. Jurriaan Peters, a neurologist who evaluated Pelletier.
Juriaan testified that staff at Children's feared Pelletier was suffering from somatoform disorder, a medical term for when a psychological condition
exacerbates or creates physical symptoms in a patient.
In his medical notes at the time, Peters wrote that some of the doctors who’d treated Pelletier suspected “factitious disorder by proxy,” a form of medical abuse involving excessive medical care or symptoms caused by a parent or guardian.
When Pelletier's parents tried to remove her from the hospital, Peters contacted child services, saying he feared for the patient's safety.
“The father was at the front desk, trying to urgently discharge Justina from the hospital,” he recalled. “I literally ran to the hospital.”
Pelletier first arrived at Boston Children’s Hospital at 4 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2013, with severe stomach pain and dehydration. The doctors on Pelletier’s care team believed her symptoms were largely psychological, rather than due to a rare genetic condition called mitochondrial disease, as her parents believed. The illness affects how cells create energy.
Pelletier currently lives with her parents and is receiving treatment for mitochondrial disease from a doctor in Connecticut. In her testimony, Pelletier described how she’s improved in recent years through art therapy and physical activity.
“I think the family will continue to do what they’ve done for years now – which is continue to fight for their daughter and the best therapy they can get for her,” Cook said. “[Justina Pelletier] is doing much better. She’s better physically. She’s better mentally. We just hope that continues.”
This article was originally published on February 20, 2020.
This segment aired on February 21, 2020.
Jonathan Cain Executive Producer, All Things Considered
Jonathan Cain is the executive producer for WBUR's All Things Considered and edits afternoon newscasts. He came to WBUR after working for 14 years as an Emmy Award-winning television news producer at NECN in Newton and WTVR in Richmond, Virginia.