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$22.4 Million Verdict for Botched Spine Surgery

Edward Calli, a 42-year-old man from New Jersey, could attend only half days of his 10-day medical malpractice trial against Philadelphia’s Episcopal Hospital and its chief of neurosurgery, Saied Alemo.

The constant pain from his botched spine surgery — and two subsequent surgeries required to correct the errors –has left him unable to sit for long periods, his lawyer Mark Tanner of Feldman Shepherd explained.

The jury sat in deliberations for only three hours before returning a $22.4 million verdict, awarding $17.6 million to Mr. Calli and $4.8 million to Mr. Calli’s wife, Sandra, for loss of consortium.

The case was presented before Judge Victor J. DiNubile. Anna Bryan of White & Williams represented the hospital, and Rick McDonald of McDonald & Synder represented Alemo.

The jury found that the spine surgery that Mr. Calli underwent in November 1992 was both unnecessary and improperly performed.

Mr. Calli was born with spondylolisthesis, a condition in which one vertebra is displaced onto the vertebra below it, causing compression of nerve roots. The condition caused him chronic back pain and occasional leg pain.

When the pain began to affect his work as a nurse at Newman Medical Center, he sought treatment.

Alemo recommended lumbar spinal fusion, a surgery in which the displaced vertebra would be realigned to stop the pressure on the nerves. He consulted several neurosurgeons who did not suggest surgery, but Mr. Calli trusted Alemo’s claim that he could return to work without pain.

According to evidence presented during the trial, Alemo had never performed a lumbar spinal fusion, a procedure which requires the insertion of metal rods and wires to realign the bones correctly.

“This is not a basic neurosurgical procedure,” Tanner said he told the jury. “It requires special hands-on training.”

The jury’s finding against the hospital indicated its belief that the hospital should not have given Alemo privileges to perform the surgery.

During the first surgery, metal rods which should have been implanted in the hip bone were left unanchored. Following the procedure, several wires broke, rupturing the protective sac around Mr. Calli’s spinal cord.

In an attempt to remedy this, Alemo performed a second surgery eight days after the first.

The second surgery made things worse.

A bone cement, methylmethacrylate, used in that procedure prevented the vertebrae from fusing, the original goal of the surgery.

We believe that it was Alemo’s original denial that he used the bone cement and his eventual admission during cross-examination which led the jury to return the verdict.

The acrylic substance was also visible to the jury in X-rays.

Mr. Calli subsequently underwent a 23-hour spinal surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, but he remains in pain, can walk only short distances and has been unable to return to work.

“I think the jury did the right thing,” Tanner said “these were deserving plaintiffs, but regardless of what they have recovered, it won’t replace what they have lost.”