MERCER – A Mercer County jury on Friday awarded $5,093,790 million in a malpractice case involving two local doctors.

The award is among the highest ever given in Mercer County.

Sharon Regional Health System was initially involved in the suit but settled the case years ago.

The suit alleges Thomas A. Natale Jr., a resident of 1811 E. Washington St. in New Castle, died as a result of two physicians, Dr. Robert Piston and Dr. Emil Maurer, failing to properly evaluate Natale before he underwent surgery.

Natale arrived at Sharon Regional's emergency room on Sept. 6, 2007, and was diagnosed as having a broken hip, the suit states. He was scheduled to undergo hip replacement surgery on Sept. 8 ,but the evening before he had a temperature of 102.1 and complained of shortness of breath. A chest X-ray was ordered and was found to be "abnormal.''

There was no evidence or documentation that Piston reviewed the chest X-ray, the suit said.

Just before surgery a nurse documented Natale was complaining of "feeling hot,'' "nauseated'' and was in pain. But there was no indication that this information was communicated to Piston or Maurer by a nurse who was monitoring Natale, the suit said.

Natale's oxygen levels were poor during the three-hour surgery, and his condition rapidly deteriorated in the days afterward, the suit said.

Natale was transferred to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh and was in critical condition due to Piston and Maurer's negligence and pervasive mismanagement of his pre- and post-operative care, the suit said.

He died on Oct. 8 after being removed life-support systems. An autopsy determined death was caused by pulmonary failure complicating adult respiratory distress syndrome. Natale's death was the direct result of the defendants' negligence, the suit alleged.

In its verdict, the jury found Piston was 60 percent responsible and Maurer was 15 percent responsible. Sharon Regional was found to be responsible for the remaining 25 percent.

However, Sharon Regional reached a private settlement with the Natale family, who filed the lawsuit, said Bob Lackey, a local attorney who is familiar with the case and who has represented Sharon Regional over the years. Lackey did not represent the healthcare provider in the Natale trial.

Lackey said terms of the settlement with Sharon Regional required that the agreed-upon sum would not be made public.

He said the lawsuit and settlement liabilities were the responsibility of the old, nonprofit Sharon Regional Health System. The health system's assets have since been sold to a for-profit company then to a second for-profit company; they were not involved in the lawsuit.

A call seeking a response from Piston was referred to a representative of his Hermitage practice. A message left for them wasn't immediately returned late Friday afternoon.

A phone message left Friday evening at a telephone number believed to be for Maurer's practice wasn't immediately returned.

The civil trial before a jury lasted two weeks and they found in favor of the Natale family's suit that malpractice had occurred, said Joshua Van Naarden, an attorney from the Philadelphia law firm of Ross Feller Casey LLP, which represented the Natales.

"It took the jury five hours on Friday to determine the percent responsibility of those involved,'' Van Naarden said.

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