Metro

Federal jury awards HIV patient $18.4 million in medical malpractice lawsuit

Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington.
Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File
Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington.

A federal jury in Boston on Monday awarded $18.4 million in damages to a man who alleged that two of his former physicians failed to test him for HIV despite risk factors that made him more vulnerable to contracting the disease.

Sean Stentiford, 48, was more susceptible to developing the virus that causes AIDS because he is gay and earlier in his life worked as a paramedic, a job that regularly exposed him to bodily fluids, his lawyer, David P. Angueira, said Tuesday.

But even though he consented to an HIV test in 2007, his doctors never performed one. About three years later, another doctor recommended the test, which came back positive, Angueira said. By then, the disease progressed to AIDS, causing Stentiford brain damage and ending his career as a lawyer.

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“He had a brilliant future in front of him. They literally cut the legs out from under him,” Angueira said. “He lost his job. He lost his career. He lost his life.”

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After an eight-day trial in US District Court, the jury found that two doctors, internist Stephen E. Southard and neurologist Kinan K. Hreib, were negligent in caring for Stentiford and caused him injury, court records show.

The panel found that a third doctor, Daniel P. McQuillen, an infectious disease specialist, was also negligent, but his actions didn’t cause Stentiford harm, court papers show.

During the medical malpractice trial, jurors were shown the consent form for HIV testing that Stentiford signed in May 2007 in the presence of his sister as he underwent a battery of tests at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington because he was experiencing facial paralysis, Angueira said.

Stentiford agreed to the testing, his lawsuit said, after a resident told him his symptoms were “highly suggestive of HIV infection.”

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Hreib disagreed, according to the lawsuit. He noted in Stentiford’s medical record that there was “no risk of HIV,” though testing would be considered.

Hreib canceled the test but never told Stentiford, according to Angueira.

But when Stentiford visited the office of Southard, his primary care doctor, in June 2007, he was told his tests “looked good,” according to the lawsuit. Stentiford believed that assessment included HIV testing because he had signed the consent form.

About three years later, as Stentiford’s condition worsened, Angueira said, his client learned he was not tested for HIV in 2007, and that he did in fact have the virus. By that time, Stentiford was struggling with brain damage and cognitive impairment.

Since 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that all patients between the ages of 13 and 64 be screened for HIV at least once, according to the agency’s website. For sexually active gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men, the agency recommends HIV testing every year, the website says.

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As early as November 2006, Stentiford’s medical records at Lahey noted that he was gay; a licensed social worker wrote a note describing Stentiford as a “ ‘somewhat closeted’ gay man.” That note was available to other Lahey physicians who treated Stentiford, according to Angueira.

In a statement, a Lahey spokesman said the hospital doesn’t agree with the “presentation of the facts” and plans to appeal the jury’s decision.

“Quality care is our top priority and the health care providers of Lahey Hospital & Medical Center have an unwavering commitment to delivering the best care to every patient, every day,” said the spokesman, Chris Murphy.

Southard and Hreib are no longer associated with Lahey, though McQuillen remains on staff, Murphy said.

Lawyers for the doctors didn’t respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

Stentiford now lives in the Bronx and no longer suffers from AIDS-related symptoms thanks to medication he takes to control his illness, Angueira said.

He said Stentiford was solemn when the jury revealed its decision.

“He was numb,” Angueira said. “I think it was overwhelming.”

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.