A Fresno dentist was negligent in caring for a patient who lost part of her jaw to a tumor, a jury ruled Monday in Fresno County Superior Court.
But the jury awarded the plaintiff far less than she sought in bringing the lawsuit.
Elina Vue, 23, appeared stunned when the verdict was announced. She had sought $3 million in damages from Dr. Su Nhia Ying Vang, who practices at Brite Care Dental on East Shields Avenue near Millbrook Avenue.
Instead, jurors awarded Vue $350,000 for future wage loss, $100,000 for future medical expenses and $50,000 for pain and suffering.
And they said Vang was only 50% liable for the pain and suffering damages.
Afterwards, Vue cried and declined to comment. Her attorney, Jeff Bohn, said the damages were too low for Vang's negligence. "It's a win, but it's her life that is damaged forever," he said.
Vang was not in the courtroom for the verdict, but his attorney, John Sillis, said the dentist is pleased that the five-year court battle has been resolved.
"He wanted his day in court," Sillis said. "We have no plans to appeal."
During the trial, Bohn contended that Vang failed to treat a growing tumor in Vue's jaw that X-rays first revealed in November 2004.
Over the next 20 months, Vue made more than a dozen visits to Vang's office. During that time, Vang took more than seven sets of X-rays of Vue's teeth, filled several cavities, did a root canal, extracted two teeth and gave her antibiotics and painkillers, Bohn told the jury.
Vue testified that Vang not only failed to detect the tumor that caused her immense pain, but he also failed to refer her to a specialist in a timely manner. When she finally saw an oral surgeon, it was too late: Her left jaw had to be removed in June 2006 and a metal bar had to be inserted. Her face is disfigured, and she says the ordeal caused her to suffer depression.
Vang, however, testified that he treated Vue properly. He also said he referred her to an oral surgeon, but Vue's mother, Ying, wanted to wait to see whether the antibiotics worked.
In its ruling, the jury said Vue's mother was 30% to blame for her daughter's injury and one of the specialists who treated Vue was 20% to blame.
The trial in Judge Donald Black's courtroom touched on Hmong culture.
Vue, who attended Central High School in Fresno, was raised to respect her Hmong elders, especially those with college degrees (Vang's is from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry) and careers. When she went to see Vang for cavities and a long overdue checkup, she had no choice but to trust him to care for her, Bohn said.
At the time of her visit, however, Vue and her family didn't know that Vang was in trouble with the Dental Board of California. In October 2006, Vang agreed to seven years of probation after the Dental Board accused him of negligence involving nearly 30 patients from 1999 to 2003.
Jurors weren't told about the Dental Board evidence because, in a pre-trial ruling, Black said it could prevent Vang from receiving a fair trial.
As a result of the verdict, Kim Trefry, the Dental Board's chief enforcement officer, said Vang's license could be in jeopardy. Trefry, however, could not elaborate because she has not reviewed the evidence in the trial.
This was Vue's second attempt to prove her negligence charge against Vang. In the first trial in late 2010, jurors hung in favor of finding Vang negligent.
After Monday's verdict, Bohn said the win means Vang's insurance will have to pay for the cost of the two trial and other court costs, so the final tally could be nearly $900,000. He also said he was disappointed that some jurors told him that Vue should just move on with her life and make the best of it. "In this Valley, there are a lot of conservative people who expect you to suck it up," Bohn said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beecourts on Twitter.