Helms family asks jury for $1.7 million, gets $0


The attorney for the family of a 39-year-old man who died within days of a finger amputation made a final plea Wednesday, asking the jury for $1.7 million in a wrongful death case.

But after about two and a half hours of deliberation, Lancaster County District Court jurors found Lincoln Surgical Hospital hadn't been negligent and gave them nothing.

Curtis Helms' family had said he was discharged too early and his pain wasn't under control when he went home two days after the surgery in 2005.

"Was this death preventable? We say yes it was," Terry Sibbernsen said in closing arguments.

The hospital says the death, while tragic, wasn't a result of anything it did but rather a result of Helms taking too many pain pills once he got home.

To succeed, the Helms' family needed to prove the hospital was negligent, and that its negligence caused his death. Had the jurors found both, it would have taken up the question of damages.

Attorneys on either side called experts during the trial to speak to the standard of care provided to Curtis Helms and the cause of his death.

His wife, Melanie, found him dead in their bedroom Nov. 18, 2005, three days after the surgery.

Sibbernsen said she knew her husband, the father of their six children, was dead but tried to revive him with CPR with one of their daughters relaying instructions on a 911 call.

"Those moments are forever embedded in her mind, as well as, I'm sure, the minds of her children," Sibbernsen said.

The family believes that had Curtis Helms not been discharged when he was, he would not have died, he said.

"As a result of this, Curtis Helms passed away and a family is left without a father, and Melanie Helms is left without a husband," Sibbernsen said.

He suggested $1,728,600 would be fair compensation.

William Tannehill, attorney for Lincoln Surgical Hospital, said Curtis Helms' death was caused by severe coronary artery disease and by him taking too many pain pills when he went home.

"If this was a case about sympathy, the hospital wouldn't have a chance," Tannehill said. "We need to apply logic. We need to apply reason."

He said the hospital and the nurse on duty the day Helms was discharged did what they were supposed to do.

The other side alleged the nurse did a sloppy job of record keeping and assessing Curtis Helms' pain and contested her contention that he had said he felt better and wanted to go home.

Tannehill said there was no indication of overmedication until much later in the day.

In an anticlimactic end to the eight-day trial, the parties and attorneys waived their presence at the verdict, which came at about 2:30 p.m.

The Helms' family also had sued Dr. Matthew Reckmeyer and his practice, Lincoln Orthopaedic Center, but District Judge Jodi Nelson dismissed them Monday, finding the plaintiff hadn't presented any evidence alleging he breached the standard of care.

Because Curtis Helms injured his finger while working at the Lincoln Regional Center, the state has paid death benefits and funeral expenses to date of $149,000.

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