A South Carolina woman has become the first survivor of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, shock treatment) to win a jury verdict and a large money judgment in compensation for extensive permanent amnesia and cognitive disability caused by the procedure.
Peggy S. Salters, 60, sued Palmetto Baptist Medical Center in Columbia, as well as the three doctors responsible for her care. As the result of an intensive course of outpatient ECT in 2000, she lost all memories of the past 30 years of her life, including all memories of her husband of three decades, now deceased, and the births of her three children. Ms. Salters held a Masters of Science in nursing and had a long career as a psychiatric nurse, but lost her knowledge of nursing skills and was unable to return to work after ECT.
The jury awarded her $635,177 in compensation for her inability to work. The malpractice verdict was against the referring doctor, Eric Lewkowiez. The jury could not return a verdict against the other two doctors because of one holdout vote for acquittal. The hospital settled its liability for an undisclosed sum early in the trial.
Former patients have reported devastating, permanent amnesia and cognitive impairment since ECT was first invented in 1938, but that has not hindered the treatment’s popularity with doctors. The first lawsuit for ECT amnesia, Marilyn Rice v. John Nardini, was brought exactly thirty years ago, and dozens of suits have followed. While there have been a few settlements, including one for half a million dollars, no former patient has won a case until now.
Psychiatrist Peter Breggin, who served as Ms. Salters’ expert witness, was also the expert in Rice v. Nardini, and has appeared for plaintiffs many times over the past three decades without success. Psychologist Mary E. Shea presented extensive neuropsychological testing proving to the jury’s satisfaction that Ms. Salters suffers dementia due to ECT brain damage.
Expert for the defense was Charles Kellner of New Jersey, formerly of the Medical University of South Carolina. He testified that giving Ms. Salters’ 13 shocks in 19 days, instead of 26 days as is usual, was not a violation of the American Psychiatric Association guidelines. However, his assertions that Ms. Salters’ severe suicidality justified the controversial treatment could not be substantiated by the medical records. 82-year-old Max Fink of New York, widely regarded as the “grandfather of shock” and the author of many books and articles on ECT, was scheduled to testify for the defense, but in the end only watched the trial from the courtroom. The defense did not call him as a witness due to incriminating statements made under oath at his deposition.
For the past three decades, defense attorneys have won case after case by the same strategy: browbeating the jury with the plaintiff’s psychiatric history, playing upon the prevailing cultural notions that mental patients are incapable of telling the truth and doctors don’t lie; even claiming that mental illness causes amnesia and brain damage. Even neurological testing showing brain damage has been brushed aside. Peggy Salters’ case is the first in which a former ECT patient has been believed. She says she sees it as a victory for all ECT survivors.
Case information: Peggy S. Salters vs. Palmetto Health Alliance, Inc., d/b/a Palmetto Baptist Medical Center; Robt. Schnackenberg, M.D., Individually, Eric Lewkowiez, M.D., Individually, Columbia Psychiatric Associates, P.A.; and Kenneth Huggins, M.D., Individually; Case 03CP4004797, Richland County, South Carolina
Source: “Landmark Decision: Jury Awards $635,177 Damages for Memory Loss from Electroshock,” press release of Committee for Truth in Psychiatry, July 8, 2005.