Plaintiff awarded $325,000 in surgery lawsuit

Sunday, November 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:16 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

The simple act of baking Halloween cookies with her young daughter this year brought 26-year-old Carrie Ratliff of Higbee to tears. Because she has reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a debilitating nerve condition, she could not hold the mixer needed to make the holiday treats.

In a civil trial that began Tuesday in Boone County Circuit Court, Ratliff charged Dr. Ronald D. Carter, a surgeon practicing at Columbia Orthopaedic Group, with causing her RSD by performing an unnecessary carpal tunnel surgery on Dec. 11, 1997. Ratliff’s cookie-baking experience is just one example her attorneys gave of how RSD affects her everyday life.

“It’s the little things,” attorney Andy Russell told the jury of seven men and five women. “She cries, she has pain, and she doesn’t know when the pain is going to come.”

After about eight hours of deliberations Thursday, jurors awarded Carrie Ratliff $325,000 in lost earnings by a vote of 9-3. Russell had sought $1.5 million in damages for Ratliff — $700,000 for economic loss and $800,000 for pain and suffering — and $80,000 for Ratliff’s husband Rusty, 31, for lost household services.

Hamp Ford, attorney for Carter, said he plans to motion for a new trial, citing questionable witness testimony and overly broad jury instruction.

Although the verdict was considerably less than they’d requested, Russell said he and the Ratliffs were happy with the verdict.

Carter began treating Ratliff in October 1997 for a ganglion cyst developing from inflamed tissues surrounding her right wrist joint. At that time, she was also dropping things and experiencing mild tingling and numbness in her hand — all symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Following a nerve conduction study that produced borderline results for carpal tunnel, Carter performed surgery on Ratliff to remove the ganglion cyst from her outer wrist and relieve the carpal tunnel symptoms on her inner wrist simultaneously. It is the carpal tunnel operation that Ratliff says caused her to develop RSD.

RSD is a rare condition that sometimes follows trauma, causing permanent sensitivity, decreased range of motion and occasional discoloration and temperature changes in the arm.

At trial, Russell argued that surgery was unwarranted in Ratliff’s case, stressing the “borderline” indicators of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Ford said his client is an experienced surgeon, having performed more than 1,400 carpal tunnel surgeries in his career. Ford argued that Carter was justified in operating on Ratliff because she’d shown sufficient signs of carpal tunnel syndrome for a long enough time. Expert witnesses also stated there was no definitive proof that Ratliff’s RSD was a direct result of carpal tunnel surgery.

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