On April 20, 2004, Caridad Cuevas underwent surgical removal of a stone from her salivary gland. Afterwards, she was left with a severe temporomandibular joint (TMJ) injury.

Ms. Cuevas, a 21 year old medical assistant, contended that her TMJ injury was the result of her jaw being hyperextended by the anesthesiologist when administering general anesthesia via endotracheal intubation:

Ms. Cuevas brought a successful lawsuit against the doctor and the hospital and a Manhattan jury awarded pain and suffering damages in the sum of $1,250,000 ($250,000 past – six years; $1,000,000 future – 55 years).

The defense successfully argued that the award was excessive and the trial judge agreed that the award should be reduced to $750,000 ($250,000 past, $500,000 future).

The hospital appealed both the liability verdict and the damages award, even as reduced. Now, in Cuevas v. St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hosp. Ctr. (1st Dept. 2012), the appellate court has affirmed on all counts and the pain and suffering award stands at $750,000.

 As set forth in the appellate court decision, due to the TMJ injury Ms. Cuevas had to wear a mouth guard at all times (causing a lisp) and she could not:

  • open her mouth more than 15 milliliters without pain
  • eat without pain or cutting her food into very small pieces
  • kiss her husband normally

What was not mentioned in the decision is the fact that plaintiff suffered from pre-existing multiple sclerosis (an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord) and as a result she was not a candidate for any surgery to correct her TMJ injury and could not take anti-inflammatory medication.

 Inside Information:

  • The loss of consortium and services verdict for plaintiff’s husband in the sum of $250,000 ($50,000 past, $200,000 future) was reduced to $150,000 (50,000 past, $100,000 future). This aspect of the verdict included consideration of the fact that the married couple could not kiss normally.
  • The defense contended that plaintiff’s multiple sclerosis showed a pre-disposition for a TMJ injury.
  • The hospital had sought summary judgment dismissing the complaint before trial claiming that it could not be held liable for the negligence of an anesthesiologist who was an independent contractor not employed by the hospital. The motion was denied.