April 2, 2008

$7.5 Million Jury Award in Psychosurgery Malpractice Case

Peter R. Breggin M.D. testified in case

On June 10, 2002, a jury unanimously found the Cleveland Clinic negligent in causing permanent, disabling brain damage to a woman by performing experimental psychosurgery on her without informed consent.  Psychosurgery is the destruction of normal brain tissue for the purpose of treating psychiatric disorders or for the control of emotions and behavior.  It does not include operations, such as those for Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy, where an identifiable physical abnormality in the brain is causing a known physical disorder.

The jury awarded $5 million for future medical expenses; $300,000 for past medical expenses; $1.1 million for pain and suffering and inability to perform usual functions; and $1.1 million to the patient’s husband for loss of consortium.  The total was $7.5 million in damages.

The patient, Mrs. Mary Lou Zimmerman, was 58 at the time of the surgery and suffered from persistent obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.  In a single operation she was subjected to four lesions in her brain produced by heated electrodes inserted through her skull into her brain tissue.  The lesions, approximately one-half inch in diameter, were placed two each in the anterior cingulum and the internal capsule of the brain.  These areas contain large fiber tracts that connect nerve cells (neurons) throughout the brain.  Damage and destruction in these pathways leads to neuronal cell death and dysfunction in the specific areas as well as multiple other areas throughout the brain through a process called retrograde degeneration.  As a result of the surgery and a subsequent abscess in her brain, the patient developed dementia and became mute and emotionally disabled.  The neurosurgeon was Dr. Gene Barnett.

After the suit was brought, the Cleveland Clinic stopped performing this kind of psychosurgery involving the outright destruction of brain tissue.  At trial, only two other existing psychosurgery projects were identified in the United States, one at Harvard Medical School and the other at Brown University.

As a consultant and one of the medical experts in the case, psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin, M.D. testified that the surgery was unique, idiocyncratic, dangerous, and experimental, and should not have been performed as a routine clinical procedure.  He also testified that the patient and her family had not been properly informed about the dangerous and experimental nature of the surgery.  He summarized the history of psychosurgery and linked modern surgery to earlier lobotomy operations in terms of its destructive potential.  Dr. Breggin described the history of his organized reform efforts to stop the resurgence of psychosurgery in the early 1970s in North America and elsewhere in the world.  He testified that his criticism of psychosurgery had stopped most of the projects in the United States and helped to establish the standard that psychosurgery is experimental and unacceptable as a routine clinical procedure.  (A history of these efforts can be found in The War Against Children of Color co-authored in 1998 by Peter and Ginger Breggin.  Also see Dr. Breggin’s many papers and book chapters on the subject in his professional bibliography.)

Two Harvard professors who are noted advocates of psychosurgery testified on behalf of the neurosurgeon and the Cleveland Clinic.  Their failure to sway the jury was a serious blow to the aspirations of the few remaining psychosurgeons in the United States.