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Oct 19, 1998

HOSPITAL SETTLES LAWSUIT FILED BY ABORTION PATIENT

Sentara Norfolk General Hospital has settled an unusual medical malpractice lawsuit that accused the hospital and a nurse of mistreating an abortion patient in 1994.

The lawsuit, filed in 1996, accused a labor-and-delivery nurse who opposed abortion, Nancy C. Benson, of criticizing and harassing a patient who was about to undergo an abortion.

The lawsuit accused Sentara of not protecting the patient from the nurse and of negligently hiring, supervising and training her.

The case was settled confidentially last week. It is not known how much money Sentara paid to the complaining patient, who was identified in court papers as Jane Doe.

“We were very satisfied with the resolution of this matter,” said Doe’s attorney, Michael L. Goodove. “We felt we were dealt with very fairly by Sentara.”

The nurse’s attorney, Dante M. Filetti, said his client did not participate in the settlement. She was voluntarily dismissed from the case just before it was settled.

“I’m just really happy that the matter is closed,” Filetti said. “It was a tough matter for her.”

Sentara’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

This is the second lawsuit concerning this particular abortion and this nurse. The first case was a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by Benson against Sentara. Benson claimed she was forced out of the hospital because she refused to help with abortions. Benson lost that case in January 1997 when a judge ruled she was properly suspended for her unprofessional behavior and “complete lack of judgment” in this particular abortion.

The incident happened Dec. 22, 1994. The patient was 4 1/2 months pregnant with a deformed fetus. Benson was assigned to help her prepare for an abortion.

In her lawsuit, the patient said Benson did not help. She said Benson criticized her for choosing the abortion, told her she would never get over it, and said she would have to celebrate her dead child’s birthday just as she celebrated her living child’s.

Then, the lawsuit said, the nurse started crying and said she was opposed to abortion, acknowledged that she had never assisted in an abortion before and told the patient that she – the patient – would have to help her – the nurse – through the difficult procedure.

The patient and her husband complained, Benson was taken off the abortion and suspended. She quit a few days later.

Benson has said in an interview and court papers that the hospital knew she opposed abortions, yet constantly pressured her to help with them. She said she refused several times, then finally was forced to help with this one.

Benson said she did not harass the patient but tried to help the woman understand what she was about to go through. She said the hospital forced her out of her job because of her religious beliefs.

In January 1997, U.S. District Judge John A. MacKenzie ruled that the nurse was wrong.

“Benson was not fired for refusing to care for an abortion patient,” MacKenzie ruled. “Quite the opposite, she was disciplined for the type of care that she did render to the patient. In fact, the discipline of suspension came about for her complete lack of judgment in the 15 minutes” in which she cared for the patient. “By her conduct,” the judge wrote, “Benson created anxiety in the mind of a patient awaiting sensitive surgery and she created a customer service disaster for her employer.”

Benson appealed, then settled with Sentara before the appeal could be heard.

The patient then sued Benson and Sentara in December 1996. The lawsuit said Benson was negligent for forcing her personal beliefs onto a patient about to undergo an abortion, for criticizing the patient’s decision to have the abortion, and for failing to provide nursing care and comfort. Benson and Sentara denied the charges.

Even though the case was 14 months old, it was never set for trial.