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pointingfingersLawsuit against doctors begins

The reputation of two south-central Indiana physicians, including a retired specialist who formerly practiced in Columbus, will be challenged when a medical malpractice lawsuit begins today at the Bartholomew County Courthouse.

Jury selection in the case of Morgan and Brandon Ashley vs. ophthalmologist Joseph W. Conner and Seymour family physician D. Robert Baker is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. today before special Judge Richard W. Poynter of Jackson County.

Conner, a licensed physician for 36 years, had his practice with Parkside Ophthalmology on the north side of Columbus before retiring in June 2014, a family member said.

Why Columbus and not Brownstown?Moving a trial mostly involving Jackson County residents to a nearby community such as Columbus is not that unusual, a Virginia attorney specializing in medical malpractice cases says.

One reason is that juries from counties the size of Bartholomew (population 71,435) are generally considered more plaintiff-friendly than rural counties such as Jackson (population 41,335), according to Randy Wimbish, president of the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys.

In rural areas, a physician may be not only a beloved caretaker to generations of families, but also a prominent community member involved in various social, religious or charitable organizations, Wimbish wrote on his organization’s website.

By moving the trial to a larger community where the doctor is not well known, a plaintiff’s attorney may be able to eliminate a physician’s home-field advantage, the attorney wrote.

In medical malpractice cases, physicians already have quite an advantage. Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice indicate plaintiffs win only 27 percent of these types of cases, compared to 52 percent for all other plaintiff-won tort trials.

Even a victory doesn’t necessarily mean money for a plaintiff. In fact, most plaintiff-won claims closed with no compensation to a claimant at all, the federal bureau stated.


But the charges against him, as well as Baker, stem from a patient Conner saw six years ago at his other office, Conner Smith Eye Care on West Tipton Street in Seymour.

Morgan Ashley, 27, claims she became legally blind as a result of receiving sub-standard medical care from Baker, her family doctor, and Conner. Brandon Ashley, 34, contends he should be compensated for losing unspecified services of his wife.

The couple, who have lived several years in the Crothersville area, have not specified the amount of monetary damages they are seeking.

Their case was laid out in the original complaint for injuries filed May 22, 2013, in Bartholomew Circuit Court by the couple’s attorney, Patrick W. Harrison of Columbus.

When Morgan Ashley saw Baker in the summer of 2010, she complained of skin problems on her legs. According to the plaintiff’s allegations, the physician did not evaluate, examine or even look at her legs before prescribing an antibiotic known to cause pressure around the brain in women of Ashley’s age and size.

The lawsuit also contends the dosage of the antibiotic prescribed by Baker was too high.

Ashley was complaining of a number of ailments when she saw her family doctor again Oct. 4, 2010, including a nearly month-long severe headache and blurred vision, Harrison wrote.

But without performing an eye examination or asking her to see a specialist, Baker wrongly diagnosed her with sinusitis and tension headache, the lawsuit contends.

Eleven days later, Ashley was examined by Conner for the first time. After conducting a brain-imaging scan, Conner discovered Ashley had twice as much water in her spinal fluid than normal, which was placing pressure on her optic nerve.

After reducing the fluid, the woman’s headache disappeared. However, her lawsuit argues the two weeks between her first visit to Conner and the day the fluid was drained was negligently long.

While Ashley contends Baker prescribed too much antibiotic, the lawsuit claims Conner prescribed too little of a medication used for reducing spinal fluid production to provide acceptable medical benefits.

By the time Conner scheduled a follow-up exam 14 days after the excess fluid was removed, Ashley’s vision had deteriorated so rapidly and severely that she was legally blind, the lawsuit states.

“If she had been treated in an urgent and timely manner, more likely than not she would have had very little permanent vision damage,” Harrison wrote.

The couple is claiming it was the failure of both physicians to comply with established standards of care that resulted in permanent vision impairment.

Without giving specific details, Harrison also stated an opinion issued by a medical review panel will support his clients.

Upon the advice of their attorneys, both physicians have responded to dispositions and other forms of pretrial questioning by stating they have insufficient information to either confirm or deny allegations.

However, recent court filings indicate Baker’s attorney, Jon M. Pinnick of Indianapolis, and David Scott Strite of Louisville, who represents Conner, will argue that Ashley failed to give the physicians accurate information about her medical history, the prescriptions she had been taking and changes in her condition, including her loss of vision.

The almost three-year delay in bringing the medical malpractice case to trial comes largely from time taken to collect subpoena medical and pharmacy records, court records state.

However, other filings indicate there were also postponements resulting from:

A prolonged search for a special judge

Several motions filed by either side

Changes in attorneys

Seeking expert testimony

Because Conner resides in Bartholomew County, it has been determined that holding the trial in Columbus is a proper venue, court records state.

Due to an anticipated large number of spectators and witnesses, the trial will be held in the Bartholomew Superior Court 1 courtroom, which has the largest seating capacity in the courthouse.

Five days have been set aside for the trial.

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