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Jury Sets Cost of Girl’s Care at $30.6 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thrifty Payless Inc. was ordered Wednesday to pay $30.6 million for the care of a 10-year-old Costa Mesa girl who was left with brain damage after being given a medication nearly seven times more powerful than prescribed.

The drugstore chain admitted during the trial in Orange County Superior Court that it had erroneously filled Bryn Cabanillas’ prescription for anti-seizure medication by giving her the improper dosage.

The jury awarded $5.3 million for past damages and $25.3 million to cover the child’s medical costs, estimated at about $150,000 a year, and other living expenses during her projected 50-year life span, attorneys said. The jury also found that the pharmaceutical error cost the girl 20 years of her life.

The verdict “will ensure that she’ll get the best of care,” said the child’s father, Naldo Cabanillas. “I expect her to walk and talk one day. I’m an optimist.”

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At a news conference in Santa Ana after the verdict was announced, Bryn’s father led the child by both hands. She walked with a slump and could barely stand alone. Her father held Bryn in his lap as they sat at a conference table, flanked by the child’s sister, Carrie, and her mother. Bryn seemed oblivious to the media event, reaching for the microphones as if they were toys.

“I just think of today and tomorrow,” said her father, a self-employed architectural designer. “I cannot go back to the way things were. I lost my daughter.”

Attorneys called the jury verdict the largest prescription malpractice award in Orange County history.

Bryn had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after she was adopted from Peru at birth. In 1994, she suffered a respiratory infection that caused a seizure, leading doctors to prescribe phenobarbital to prevent further attacks, said Jay Cordell Horton, her attorney.

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But after taking the medicine, Bryn became lethargic. Her speech was slurred and her balance was off, said her mother, Jill Cabanillas. She and her husband checked the prescribed pills, which appeared a little larger than Bryn’s usual medicine. They took the child to a hospital, but doctors there could not find anything wrong and sent her home.

Two days later, according to court testimony, the couple could not wake their daughter. They again took her to the hospital, this time taking the prescription drug with them. At Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, a physician discovered that the medicine was actually a 100-milligram dosage of phenobarbital, rather than the 15-milligram dosage that had been prescribed and was indicated on the pharmacy container.

“We were horrified,” said Jill Cabanillas, 49. “We were very upset. But even then, we could never have dreamed it would lead to something so horrible.”

Their daughter, who before the incident had been scheduled to join regular classes at the Waldorf School of Orange County in Newport Beach, can no longer speak, get out of bed, pick out her clothes or brush her teeth, all of which she did before.

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“She has a personality. [Her parents] know she’s still somewhere in there,” Horton said. “They’re looking for her.” The settlement, he said, “will allow them to explore every avenue to try to rehabilitate her.”

Attorneys for Thrifty Payless could not be reached for comment Wednesday. During the trial, they brought in medical experts to testify that the negligence did not cause injury to Bryn.

Bryn’s attorneys, however, called eight medical experts to refute that and present detailed evidence that showed a connection down to “the microscopic neuron level,” Horton said.

“When you have an overdose, the receptor cells shut down and the medicine can’t get into the nerve cells to control the seizures,” he said. “It’s a known clinical phenomenon.”

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The uncontrolled seizures caused severe brain damage, attorneys said.

Family members and supporters expressed relief and gratitude that the jury had understood their plight.


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