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Teen to testify against Bush malpractice cap

She won $3.55 million verdict against surgeon

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A high school girl who won a $3.55 million medical malpractice verdict against a Pittsburgh surgeon two years ago is speaking out about her case to fight President Bush's plan to cap jury awards for pain and suffering.

Heather Lewinski, left, appears with her lawyer, John Gismondi, yesterday at a news conference. Lewinski, who won a $3.55 million malpractice verdict against a Pittsburgh surgeon, is scheduled to testify tomorrow against President Bush's plan to cap jury awards for pain and suffering. (Theresa Glenn, Post-Gazette)

Heather Lewinski, 17, of Hamburg, N.Y., was in Pittsburgh yesterday to receive a Comeback Award from the Western Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.

She is scheduled to testify tomorrow before a congressional committee that is considering a bill to limit the amount of money juries can award plaintiffs for their pain and suffering, said her attorney, John Gismondi.

At a Downtown news conference, Lewinski said a cap would unfairly pre-judge the dollar value of the pain and suffering that she and other victims have experienced.

A jury that listened to extensive testimony from both sides about Lewinski's case said her pain and suffering were worth much more, Gismondi said. Juries should have that authority, he said, and judges can always reduce awards that they view as excessive.

"We believe everyone is entitled to have their case judged individually," he said. "I don't think anybody would reasonably look at her case and say that's only worth $250,000."

As a young girl, Lewinski developed a skin disorder near the left side of her mouth. Known as localized scleroderma, the condition caused a small depression and discoloration in that area of her face.

When she was 9, Lewinski met with Dr. Dennis J. Hurwitz, a Pittsburgh plastic surgeon, who recommended tissue expansion surgery. After the initial two-part surgery and two subsequent operations to improve the girl's appearance, Lewinski's parents sought care in Boston, said Heather's mother, Lauri Lewinski.

Between the third grade and 10th grade, Lewinski underwent a total of 10 major surgeries. She missed months of school and experienced taunts and teasing from other students when she was in class.

Despite the difficulties, Lewinski will graduate from high school this spring and hopes to become a special education teacher. And while some students cruelly focused on her deformity, she said she had one good friend who stood by her through the years.

Lewinski's medical care was covered throughout her surgeries by insurance. The malpractice award was solely for the pain and suffering claim. The jury's verdict will help make sure that Lewinski will have some financial security as she goes forward in life, her mother said.

Reached by phone last night, Hurwitz said he is very sorry about Lewinski's situation, but maintains he was trying to provide her with the best possible care. Hurwitz thinks the presentation of facts in a courtroom can unfairly make doctors scapegoats for problems that would have existed even if they hadn't been involved.

Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at csnowbeck@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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