After less than six hours of deliberation, a Suffolk County jury on Thursday found that Boston Children’s Hospital was not negligent in its treatment of Justina Pelletier, a Connecticut teenager whose plight sparked an emotional debate about parental rights in medical decisions.
Pelletier spent nearly a year in the hospital’s child psychiatric ward in 2013 after doctors told state authorities they suspected her parents of medical child abuse. The state’s child protection agency took custody of the 14-year-old within days of her arrival at Children’s and minimized interactions, visitations, and telephone conversations with her parents.
The verdict ended a five-week trial that centered on whether Pelletier’s parents, Lou and Linda, were unfairly excluded from their daughter’s treatment plan and whether the effects of the separation were detrimental to Pelletier, now 21.
The jury’s decision brought an emphatic close to the years-long fight waged by the family against her caregivers.
Several Pelletier supporters, some also parents of ill children, had turned out for the final days of the trial.
Neither Pelletier nor her mother were in the courtroom to hear the verdict. Lou Pelletier, sitting straight on a wooden courtroom bench, took the decision stoically. Justina Pelletier’s older sister, Jennifer, closed her eyes and held them shut upon hearing that the family had lost their case.
“It’s a painful wound that will take some time to get over,” Lou Pelletier said later Thursday. “Eventually we’ll move on and live our lives. But if we can help other people [with similar experiences], it will help deal with some of the sting.”
Justina Pelletier’s parents had alleged that the pediatric hospital and four of their daughter’s caregivers committed malpractice and violated their civil rights. The four pediatric specialists named in the lawsuit — neurologist Jurriaan Peters, psychiatrist Colleen Ryan, psychologist Simona Borjeanu, and child abuse pediatrician Alice Newton — had attended the trial faithfully. The jury’s decision cleared them all.
None of them wanted to comment after hearing the verdict but their somber expressions had clearly faded to relief. None ventured as much as a smile.
In a statement, Boston Children’s said the jury’s decision affirmed its belief in its doctors.
“Our clinicians provided Justina Pelletier high quality, compassionate care, and always acted in the best interest of her health and well-being," the statement said. "This same standard of excellence guides the care we provide each child who comes to our hospital.”
In an interview, one of the 13 jurors in the case provided insight into the deliberations.
“This case plays to the heart of a lot of people,” the juror said. At first blush, it looked and felt like these people took their daughter away, he said. “But the evidence bore out a more complicated story,” he said.
The 34-year-old spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy.
The crux of the dispute between doctors and Pelletier’s parents was whether her myriad health problems were primarily medical or psychological when she arrived at Children’s.
The jury, seven women and six men, heard from nearly two dozen witnesses and sat through hours and hours of evidence presentation that included volumes of medical records and numerous doctors’ e-mails, including one that referred to the family as “evil."
Stacks of banker’s boxes, 11 in all, filled with medical records documenting Pelletier’s journey through the health care system served as a backdrop in the courtroom.
Throughout the trial, doctors past and present described Pelletier’s parents as difficult, demanding, and demeaning. The parents dismissed psychiatric treatment as “psychological baloney” and were quick to dispute what experts told them, according to testimony.
As they tried to prove their medical malpractice claim, the Pelletier family sought to show that the accused doctors fell short of the standards of care in their areas of expertise.
But a lawyer for the hospital pointed out that the family’s experts brought no expertise. They included a philosopher, a retired rural emergency room doctor, and a “professional witness” who had never treated children, Cohen said.
When it was time to deliberate, the juror said, “I had my mind totally made up that the doctors didn’t do anything wrong.”
The expert witnesses the family’s lawyers brought in did not sway anyone’s opinions, he said. “We barely considered their experts, they were so unqualified.”
The juror said he and his fellow jurors considered the Pelletier family "problematic.'' “They seemed to be impossible to work with,” the juror said.
They didn’t hold Dr. Ryan’s derogatory e-mails against her, he said.
“She had to deal with them for months and months and months,” the juror said. “She bore the brunt of it.”
In February 2013 Justina Pelletier had been rushed to Children’s after treatment at Tufts Medical Center for mitochondrial disease, a medically baffling and incurable condition characterized by mutated cells.
Pelletier’s older sister had been diagnosed with the same condition.
But Children’s doctors said Pelletier’s symptoms ― severe constipation and abdominal pain, slurred speech, and an inability to walk, talk, or swallow — were largely psychological, and believed she would benefit from a separation from her parents to focus on intensive psychological treatment and therapy.
The aim was “to teach her to be healthy” and “to stop encouraging her to think of herself as a sick child,” Ellen Epstein Cohen, a lawyer for the hospital, said in her closing argument Wednesday.
Jurors had empathy and sympathy for Pelletier, the juror said.
“We felt sorry for her,” he said. “We just wished that we could give her money or something.”
But the jury considered the bigger picture, he said.
“What does this mean in the future?" he said they contemplated. "Will doctors not report abuse because they’re scared of being sued?”
He said one reticent juror told the others: “I’m thinking more with my heart than my head.”
In 2016, Pelletier’s parents filed their civil lawsuit against the hospital and four of their daughter’s doctors and caregivers, claiming they violated their civil rights by instigating DCF to take their daughter from them and barring them from her treatment.
Lawyers for the Pelletiers told jurors the DCF referral was based on intentional lies, bias against the parents, and an unfounded diagnosis that blamed Lou and Linda Pelletier for their daughter’s acute symptoms and poor health.
They also alleged negligence by the Children’s physicians for ignoring plans put in place by Pelletier’s former doctors at Tufts Medical Center.
“It just didn’t square up,” the juror said. “The evidence just wasn’t there."