MOULTRIE -- One juror in a medical malpractice trial held out for almost 12 hours of deliberation over two days. Finally, on Saturday, in the sixth day of trial, both parties agreed to go with a majority decision rather than face a third mistrial.

By an 11-1 vote, the jury ruled that established Moultrie surgeon Dr. Thomas Estes was not negligent in his care of motor vehicle accident victim and plaintiff Kenneth Fletcher.

When the verdict was read, Estes said he found his mind dwelling on that one juror.

"How could one juror not see the truth? ... It's somewhat unsettling to think about the one person who has allowed himself or herself to be swayed by the untenable arguments of Mr. (Hugh) Gordon (plaintiffs' attorney). That's what's particularly frightening to me," he said.

The whole case could boil down to risk assessment. Should a surgeon wait to ascertain what's wrong with a patient before putting him under the knife, or should he open him up in an attempt to find out what's going on?

Juror John Rowley said for him the deciding factor was when Estes typed Fletcher for two units of blood to have on hand just in case he had to go into surgery.

"To me, it comes down to the standard of care: Was he negligent? Did he offer him the same standard of care that he would have offered me or anybody else. To me, (Estes) looked at evidence like we looked at evidence on the case. He looked at his charts and his CTs ... The possibilities of something happening are always there," Rowley said.

The juror also held up the fact that when Fletcher was admitted at Tift Regional Medical Center, the doctors there had him initially under observation.

Gordon was unnerved by some jurors thinking Fletcher has not reversed his colostomy in five years in an effort to get sympathy at trial. Fletcher has no money, the lawyer said. He lost his home and his insurance, he said.

Some of the jurors also indicated that they dismissed the mandates in the trauma manuals, because they believed the mandates were only applicable to the first couple of hours in the emergency room. Gordon cited passages in the manuals that indicated they mandate procedure beyond the "golden hour" of care.

Gordon said the linchpin for his clients' case was the fact that the defendant offered no authoritative treatises to support his actions, despite this being his third time back in the courtroom.

"He and his expert have testified that they exist, and then they don't bring them. You know they're lying. There's not other conclusion, because those are good lawyers -- well trained -- the best," he said.

After court was dismissed, Fletcher, his family and counsel hurried out of the courthouse. When The Observer caught up to him, Fletcher said he is still satisfied that he was doing the right thing and is holding his head high despite the jury's verdict against his allegations.

"If anything, that doctor's a better doctor now," he said. "I may not have gotten any money or compensation out of it, but I feel like I've done my part in helping the people of Colquitt County and every other county around."

"I'm not omniscient and never claimed to be omniscient," Estes said. "But, hopefully, I will have the courage to treat patients the way I think they need to be treated and not be directed by outside forces, so to speak."

The defendant thought Gordon's questioning him about whether he had a drinking problem was a reckless attempt to get another mistrial when he saw the trial was not going the plaintiffs' way.

"The witnesses and the experts swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but the attorneys have the leeway to tell untruths and half truths and insinuations that are baseless," Estes said. "He cast baseless aspersions upon my character, my family's character and my friends' character. That's out of bounds as far as I'm concerned."

The doctor also was goaded by the inadmissibility of the fact that most of Fletcher's medical bills were covered by insurance. Gordon said that if Fletcher had gotten the verdict, he would have had to reimburse the insu

rance companies.

Estes said he regarded some of Gordon's remarks to the jury during closing arguments as threatening, particularly Gordon holding over the heads of the jury that if the jury came back with a verdict against Estes, it would make he and other local doctors better at their job.

"Nothing could be further from the truth -- as if that developed an 'us and against' them sort of mentality. What's good about Moultrie community and the medical community is that we are community, and we are neighbors, and we don't want to lose that sense of friendship. Taking care of neighbors is much more rewarding than taking care of strangers," he said.

"This is not bragging," he said, "but I was a good doctor in 1997, and I'm still a good doctor. And I still plan to be a better doctor, but by evolution and studying and training in new methodologies and not from threats of malpractice suits. I just don't want the younger physicians to get in their head that they have to have a medical transcriptionist or court reporter follow them around all the time and treat somebody on the basis of what a lawyer might say rather than what they think is good medicine."

Gordon is sticking to his assertion that it's impossible to get a judgment against a physician in Colquitt County because of an intimidation factor.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "I hoped there would be more liberty down there, but there's not."

Resistant to barbs slung by the plaintiffs' counsel throughout the trial, more than 30 of the defendant's supporters in the courtroom were present at the verdict's reading.

Exhausted but elated, Estes said the support he's received from the community validates his decision to entrust his career and his children with Moultrie.

"I couldn't be more proud of the community at this point -- than anything, really," he said.

Fletcher's vigil camp was small but just as steadfast.

"There's just as many people who sit behind us," he said. "They might not have been in the courtroom, but they stand behind us."

To contact reporter Lori Glenn, please call 985-4545 ext. 224

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