$30 Million Awarded for Drug Error


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."

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 verdict the largest prescription malpractice award in Orange County history.

Bryn has cerebral palsy, which was diagnosed 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.

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 could find nothing wrong and sent her home.

Two days later, according to court testimony, the couple could not wake their daughter. They took her to the hospital, this time bringing the prescription drug with them. At Children's Hospital of Orange County, 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 very upset," said Jill Cabanillas, 49. "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 school classes, can no longer speak, get out of bed, pick out her clothes or brush her teeth.

The settlement, Horton said, will allow her parents "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 rebut those assertions and present detailed evidence that showed a connection down to "the microscopic neuron level," Horton said.

Attorneys said Bryn's parents had tried to get the drug chain to help them with medical bills and other costs for three years before filing the lawsuit in June 1997.

"I hope that because of this lawsuit, Payless and other drugstores will reevaluate their procedure . . . to ensure that no other child will be injured by prescription mistakes," Jill Cabanillas said.

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