Published Thursday, April 4, 2013 | 3:50 p.m.
Updated Thursday, April 4, 2013 | 5 p.m.
LAS VEGAS — A Nevada state court jury found the state's largest health management organization liable Thursday for $24 million in compensatory damages to three plaintiffs in a negligence lawsuit stemming from a Las Vegas hepatitis C outbreak that lawyers called the largest in U.S. history.
Plaintiffs Bonnie Brunson, 70, and her husband, Carl, who is 72, clasped hands tightly and she sobbed quietly as the verdict was read, ending the liability phase of what has been a six-week civil trial in Clark County District Court.
Plaintiff Helen Meyer, 76, whispered, "I'm in shock," to her friend, Robyn Sedillos.
"This country needs for people to know they can trust their health insurance company," Carl Brunson said later.
The Brunsons' attorney, Robert Eglet, said he'll ask the jury of three men and five women on Friday to hold Health Plan of Nevada and Sierra Health Services responsible for another $1 billion in punitive damages for what Eglet called "reckless disregard" for patients' health and safety.
"This case is the example of what is wrong with health care in our country," Eglet said after the jury was dismissed for the day. Judge Timothy Williams asked them to reconvene in the morning for proceedings on the punitive damages question.
"The insurance companies are making hundreds of billions of dollars every year, and yet the public is not getting quality health care," Eglet said. "And doctors aren't being fairly paid, so they have to take on too many patients to make a living."
Lead defense attorney D. Lee Roberts Jr. declined comment. But the two companies issued a statement promising an appeal and repeating their lawyers' complaint that they were prevented from showing the jury that company executives didn't know about allegations that a doctor in their network, Dipak Desai, was endangering patients with unsafe endoscopy practices at his outpatient clinics in Las Vegas.
"We are disappointed, but not surprised, by this verdict given the volumes of essential evidence the jury was blocked from hearing during this trial," the statement said. "We look forward to presenting our case on appeal."
Since the civil lawsuit was filed, Health Plan of Nevada and Sierra Health Services have become part of United Healthcare, part of publicly traded UnitedHealth Group.
Roberts, who argued that Desai was responsible for the hepatitis outbreak, not the companies, is expected to ask the jury and the judge to limit any damages to the Brunsons and Meyer.
Meyer and Bonnie Brunson were infected with hepatitis C during treatment at a Desai clinic in 2005, according to evidence at trial. Carl Brunson's claim for damages was for loss of consortium.
During closing arguments, Eglet accused the companies of ignoring warnings from before quitting a contract with a competent doctor to sign Desai to a low-bid contract.
Eglet sought $20 million in compensatory damages for Bonnie Brunson and $5 million for Carl Brunson.
Meyer's lawyer, Will Kemp, asked jurors to be "fair and reasonable."
The jury of three men and five women on Thursday awarded Bonnie Brunson $12 million, Carl Brunson $3 million and Meyer $9 million. One juror looked long at the Brunsons and Meyer as she was seated, and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as the verdict was read.
Desai, once a powerful member of the state Board of Medical Examiners, wasn't named in the civil lawsuit. He has denied wrongdoing, declared bankruptcy and surrendered his medical license, but faces trial in state court in April and federal court in May on separate criminal charges stemming from the outbreak. His lawyers have fought for years to prove that he is so incapacitated by strokes and other physical ailments that he is unfit for trial.
State prosecutors accuse Desai of faking his medical conditions in an attempt to escape prosecution.
The hepatitis outbreak became public in early 2008, when the Southern Nevada Health District in Las Vegas notified more than 50,000 Desai patients to get tested for blood-borne diseases including AIDS.
Health investigators later traced hepatitis C infections of nine people to procedures conducted in 2007 at endoscopy clinics owned by Desai. Although investigators reported finding hepatitis C in another 105 patients, the cases weren't conclusively linked to Desai clinics.
Eglet and Kemp also won hundreds of millions of dollars in civil judgments in 2011 against pharmaceutical companies they blamed for supplying recklessly large vials of the powerful anesthetic propofol to Desai clinics. Jurors were told in that case that the large vials were unsafely reused from patient to patient.
Desai and his clinics reached undisclosed settlements with plaintiffs before trial in those cases.