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Jury Returns Mixed Verdict in Wrongful Death Case Against Hospital

February 6, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ A jury split the blame Monday in a lawsuit brought by writer Sidney Zion against the hospital where his 18-year-old daughter died, accepting a defense that the young woman failed to reveal she had used cocaine.

The jury technically awarded Zion and his wife, Elsa, $750,000 for their daughter’s pain and suffering. But a finding that Libby Zion was 50 percent responsible for her own 1984 death means the Zions will get half that amount, $375,000.

The jury also awarded $1 in damages. It assessed no punitive damages against New York Hospital and the four doctors sued by the Zions. Defense lawyer Luke Pittoni said the defendants might appeal.

Sidney Zion, a former federal prosecutor, newspaper columnist and author of several books, crusaded for more than a decade to avenge his daughter’s death. Long before his negligence lawsuit, first brought in 1985, came to trial, his daughter’s death became a case study in how big city teaching hospitals treat their patients.

Zion charged that New York Hospital systematically overworked and undersupervised its young doctors in training. The case helped lead to New York becoming the first state to regulate intern and resident hours. It also required more supervision by senior physicians.

The Zions’ lawyer, Thomas Moore, had said that hospital doctors erred when they gave Zion the painkiller Demerol to relieve her chills and fever while she was on the antidepressant Nardil. The jury found that the drug interaction may have contributed to the death.

Defense lawyers said the care given to Libby Zion was proper, given what was known about her condition. They suggested throughout the 11-week trial that her death was caused by a cocaine reaction, possibly aggravated by other drugs.

The jury found that Libby Zion was negligent in not telling hospital emergency room personnel that she also had used cocaine.

A freshman at Vermont’s Bennington College, she entered New York Hospital the night of March 4, 1984 with a high fever and earache. She died of undetermined causes the next morning, strapped to her bed because she had been thrashing about in convulsions.

``It was an outrageous verdict,″ an angry Sidney Zion said Monday. ``I think this jury disgraced themselves with this verdict. They disgraced justice.″

``The cruelest cut of all was the cocaine,″ he said. ``New York Hospital, by putting out the big lie many years ago, they scored with it.″

The city medical examiner’s autopsy showed no cocaine in Zion’s body. But defense lawyers said those tests were done two months after she died and that earlier tests in the hospital found cocaine in her blood and her nose.

It was never determined why Libby Zion died, but Moore, the Zions’ lawyer, had said she died because she was ``abandoned″ to the negligent care of the hospital’s tired, sleep-deprived, inexperienced young doctors.

In 1987, a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges in the case, but concluded the young woman ``might have survived if she had received the experienced and professional medical care that should be routinely experienced.″

New York now regulates the hours worked by interns and residents, limiting them to 24-hour shifts (36-hour ones were common) and an average work week of 80 hours (instead of the usual 100). It also required more supervision by senior physicians.

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