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Court warns jury; Social media chatter forbidden

Judge Paul Crowley lectured the jury in a multi-million lawsuit against Mid-Columbia Medical Center Wednesday, Oct. 3, about posting messages about their service on Facebook or through other forms of social media.

That warning was delivered after Robert Keating, attorney for the hospital, complained to Crowley about the behavior of one juror prior to the beginning of what is expected to be a three-week trial in Wasco County. He said a member of the panel, which had been chosen Tuesday, had mentioned on Facebook that evening that she was serving and then aired complaints about the interruption in her life.

“Probably the most disturbing part is that this was done after the court had given instructions in social media,” said Keating.

Crowley clarified he had not specifically mentioned Facebook posts and the juror should continue to serve because the posting was general in nature. He said media reports had already announced the start of the trial so that information could be considered common knowledge.

“I will give the jury instructions not to do this type of thing because it provokes all kinds of response,” said the judge.

Five men and 10 women have been seated on the jury, which includes three alternates in case someone has to be dismissed before the trial concludes.

Before the jury was allowed in the room, Crowley was asked by Keating not to allow Gregory Kafoury, attorney for sexual abuse victims Willie Gmeinder and Erin Vance, both of The Dalles, to use partial statements made by Dr. Frederick Field in opening arguments. He said the entire deposition of the former anesthesiologist, who is now in prison, needed to be presented so that his testimony about molesting patients and co-workers could not be misconstrued.

Gmeinder and Vance agreed to have their names revealed in news reports about the trial. They are joined in the case by Sharon Hobbs, a victim from Mosier, who is represented by attorney Jan Wyers of Hood River.

Kafoury told Crowley that, because Field was behind bars and unable to be present, only pertinent comments that he had made after being arrested in July 2011 needed to be included in his opening remarks to the jury.

Field was sentenced in September 2012 to 23 years in prison after admitting that he had molested 11 women and raped one during his five years of employment with MCMC. Field was a contract anesthesiologist and abused patients and co-workers who were sedated for medical procedures and unable to defend themselves.

Crowley said a mix-up at the Department of Corrections for transport of Field had made him unavailable for the first day of proceedings. However, he sided with Keating and said new paperwork needed to be filed to start the process to bring the prisoner back to Wasco County to confirm his prior testimony.

The judge said it might be early next week before that can happen but, until then, Field’s comments could not be used. If the prisoner should be unavailable, Crowley told Kafoury that he would reconsider allowing the plaintiffs’ legal team, which also includes Mark McDougal and Jason Kafoury, to use portions of his past testimony.

Kafoury and McDougal, a Portland law firm, is representing seven out of the 12 women who were involved in the criminal case. However, to avoid an even longer trial, the first proceedings include only two of their clients, as well as Hobbs. Suits involving the other five victims will be tried at a later date. Two other women working with other attorneys recently settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money, according to Dick Baltus, spokesperson for the hospital.

Several of the victims still waiting for their trials were seated in the galley of the courtroom to observe the proceedings.

The Kafourys, McDougal and Wyers are seeking $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each of their clients. They claim MCMC administrators not only failed to take adequate steps to stop Field’s actions but engaged in an active cover-up to protect the institution from liability.

Duane Francis, chief executive officer of the hospital and Diane Storby, vice-president of operations, who deals with risk management and patient advocacy, are being sued personally for anywhere from $750,000 to $2 million in each of the victim’s claims. However, as agents of the hospital, they will not end up personally paying any judgment, if one is rendered. Both officials were present in the courtroom Wednesday and are represented by Andrew Efaw of Colorado.

He and Keating argue that MCMC officials did everything possible to deal with known complaints about Field. Administrators contend that reports of abuse were registered by only two women before the investigation into Field’s behavior was undertaken by detectives from The Dalles Police Department and Oregon State Police and other women came forward.

When one of the complainants failed to return calls and written requests for information, and the other recanted her story, Efaw said there was nothing further that could be done to get to the truth of the matter.

Wednesday afternoon, Crowley had to field another problem with a juror. A message had been delivered to him during lunch break that Juror 44 wanted to be excused because the corporation she worked for was objecting to her service.

After questioning her in chambers with attorneys from both sides, Crowley returned to the bench and said the issue had been resolved and 44 would remain on the jury. He said her employer could not, by law, prohibit her service and, in fact, was not actively trying to do so.

“I think it’s fair to summarize it this way — the issue had nothing to do with the nature of employment and I dismissed the matter,” he said.

Crowley then reminded everyone in the courtroom that the American justice system hinges on having jurors weigh evidence and render the judgment of the community, so their service is important.

Once opening arguments from both sides had been presented, which took until almost 4 p.m., Crowley turned to the jury and announced that they had been given the “road map” of the evidence that would be presented. He said the men and women on the panel had been allowed to “claim their own territory” by selecting where they sat during the first day of proceedings, but that would now become their assigned seat for the duration of the trial.

“You’ve heard opening statements, arguments and you’ve heard opinions, which should be disregarded. Now begins the presentation of evidence,” said Crowley.

Editor’s Note: In tomorrow’s edition of The Chronicle, the opening arguments in the civil case will be featured in side-by-side stories.

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