Patient wins suit over deaf interpreter

From the newsroom of the THE PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, Friday, August 22, 1997

NEW YORK -- An elderly deaf woman has won a $250,000 judgment against two Long Island hospitals that failed to provide her with a sign-language interpreter while she was hospitalized for bypass surgery and rehabilitation.

An advocate for the hearing impaired said yesterday that he believes it is the first such jury award in the state, perhaps in the country.

"This jury award is a victory for disabled people in general and deaf people specifically," said Keith Muller, executive director of the League for the Hard of Hearing, the largest and oldest not-for-profit hearing rehabilitation agency in the country.

After a seven-day trial, a federal jury in Hauppauge awarded Susan Lamonica, 74, of Shirley $125,000 in compensatory damages each from North Shore University Hospital, which is based in Manhasset, and from Southside Hospital in Bayshore.

No punitive damages were included in the award.

Yesterday, both hospitals said they were considering appealing the jury award.

"Mrs. Lamonica, we believe, had excellent medical care and good results from her treatment," said Dan Rosett, a North Shore spokesman. "The staff felt that we effectively communicated with her during both of her hospitalizations."

Said Karen Commander, a Southside spokeswoman: "The hospital absolutely and wholeheartedly supports the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Lamonica, who lost her hearing as an 8-year-old child when she had spinal meningitis, was resting yesterday at home.

"I can tell you that she is very happy [the trial] is over," said her great niece, Dawn Marie Vitale, 24. "She is happy [the jury] found it in her favor."

Speaking of her great aunt's experience at North Shore and Southside, she added: "I hope that no deaf person ever has to go through that again."

Lamonica spent 1-1/2 years in and out of the two hospitals after double bypass surgery at North Shore in spring 1994. In an interview earlier this year, her niece, Linda Geiger, recalled repeatedly asking for a sign-language interpreter during her aunt's hospital stays.

None was provided during her first hospitalization and only sporadically thereafter, she said. At one point, Geiger recalled, the surgeon called her on the telephone and informed her that her aunt was scheduled for open heart surgery the next morning.

"Who's going to come down and explain this to her?" she quoted him as saying.