Invisible no more: Widower encouraged after testifying on medical malpractice bill
By Karen Florin
Publication: The Day
Sylvester Traylor, who has been waging a legal battle with limited resources since his wife committed suicide seven years ago, said he no longer feels like “the invisible plaintiff.”
That’s because he has now testified before a legislative committee that is considering a bill to make it easier for people like him to file medical malpractice lawsuits.
Traylor, 49, of New London, sued his wife’s psychiatrist, Dr. Bassam Awwa, after Roberta Mae Traylor committed suicide on March 1, 2004. Traylor claims his wife had suicidal thoughts after taking antidepressants, and that Awwa ignored nine of his phone calls seeking help.
Mrs. Traylor, a manager at the former Filene’s department store, backed her car into the garage at the couple’s home on Vauxhall Street Extension and let the engine run, according to Traylor. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled that she committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 46.
“I loved her in life,” Traylor said during an interview this week. “I tried to get her help. Now I’m fighting for her in death.”
Awwa’s practice, Connecticut Behavioral Health Associates, has offices in
New London, Norwich and Stonington. He is affiliated with the Lawrence & Memorial and William W. Backus hospitals. He has been licensed since 1983 and is in good standing, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“There is absolutely no merit to any of the allegations he (Traylor) has raised,” said Awwa’s attorney, Donald E. Leone Jr. of Norwich.
Since he brought the lawsuit in 2006, Traylor has had sporadic legal representation, but has been “pro se,” or representing himself, for much of the time. He has worked at Foxwoods Resort Casino and as a photographer, but is currently unemployed and said he has been having health problems. The court file in his case contains hundreds of legal motions, many written by Traylor. The case is before the state Appellate Court.
His initial complaint has spurred others, including charges of misconduct against judges and attorneys. Traylor is well known in New London Superior Court, where he has spent countless hours in the law library, clerk’s office and courtrooms. Still, he said, at times he has felt invisible.
That changed last week when he testified before the Judiciary Committee about a law that requires plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases to attach a “certificate of good faith” from a medical expert with similar credentials to their complaints. Traylor obtained the certificate, but said his case was dismissed “on a technicality” because the letter was not attached to his initial complaint. The bill would make it more difficult for judges to dismiss cases so easily.
“In 2005 they revised this law and ever since then these defense lawyers have flooded courts with motions to dismiss, and judges are dismissing legitimate cases,” Traylor said.
Traylor said he testified well beyond his allotted three minutes and that he broke down and cried at one point. While at the Capitol, he said he received support from lawmakers, including state Reps. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, and Ernest Hewett, D-New London. He said a lobbyist for the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association encouraged him, as did many attorneys who represent plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits.
“I was so surprised at how many people knew of my situation,” he said.
Physicians generally charge between $2,000 and $10,000 to review a case and provide a certificate of good faith, which courts require as a way to determine whether a case has merit. Traylor said he received a letter from Dr. Howard Zonana, a Yale University psychiatrist and professor, but that his case was dismissed “on a technicality” because the letter was not properly attached to his original complaint.
Traylor said he sat down with Zonana and six other psychiatrists to review the case before Zonana issued the certificate. The Yale doctor wrote in an Oct. 18, 2006, letter that after reviewing Mrs. Traylor’s treatment records and other information, Awwa’s failure to call Traylor “played a proximate role in the death of the patient as it would have added to concerns re suicidality and prompted more active intervention by the physician.”
The proposed law revises the 2005 statute that was intended to help courts weed out frivolous malpractice cases by requiring those who would bring such lawsuits to get an opinion from a medical expert who works in the same field.
“The original intent of the statute was not such a bad thing,” said Kelly E. Reardon of The Reardon Law Firm. “The idea of trying to prevent frivolous medical malpractice suits from being filed is a legitimate one. But there have been so many issues that have arisen over the past five years as to how to implement it.”
Also, she said, conflicting state Supreme Court decisions have come down since the law was passed, and language that requires plaintiffs to get certificates from a “similar health care provider” is problematic.
Traylor said he is hopeful the legislation passes so that other so-called “pro se litigants” who want to file malpractice lawsuits are not hindered by technicalities.
“All of these people’s rights to file a medical malpractice case are being violated,” he said.