LAS VEGAS (AP) -- A Nevada jury was asked Wednesday to hold the state's largest health management company responsible for up to $1 billion in damages because two women contracted incurable hepatitis C during treatment at a Las Vegas outpatient medical clinic blamed for a community outbreak that was discovered in 2007.
In closing arguments, lawyers for plaintiffs Helen Meyer and Bonnie Brunson accused Health Plan of Nevada and Sierra Health Services Inc. executives of disregarding evidence that clinic owner Dr. Dipak Desai endangered patients at his endoscopy clinics.
"Profits over safety, ladies and gentlemen," attorney Robert Eglet said. "The money people kept the safety questions from the safety people. That is how we ended up with one of the worse medical disasters in U.S. history, right here in this community."
Eglet, representing Brunson and her husband, Carl, and attorney Will Kemp, representing Meyer, want the jury to waive a $350,000 Nevada medical liability cap and award $10 million each in compensatory damages per plaintiff, and up to $1 billion in punitive damages.
Health Plan of Nevada attorneys, led by Lee Roberts and Larry Scarborough, argue that Desai is responsible for the hepatitis outbreak, not the companies. Their closings Wednesday will follow Eglet and Kemp.
Health investigators traced the infections of Meyer, Bonnie Brunson and at least seven other people to outpatient procedures at endoscopy clinics owned by Desai. The outbreak became public when the Southern Nevada Health District notified more than 50,000 patients in early 2008 to get tested for blood-borne diseases including hepatitis and AIDS.
Local and federal health investigators found hepatitis C was in another 105 patients, but the cases were not conclusively linked to Desai clinics.
The civil jury of eight people and four alternates has been hearing evidence and testimony for five weeks. They could begin deliberating Thursday.
They'll be asked to determine if, as Eglet and Kemp argue, the companies knew that Desai was cutting safety corners when he won a low-bid contract to provide endoscopy services for patients covered by a company with more than 80 percent of the HMO market in and around Las Vegas.
"This case boils down to defendants' failure to look, failure to listen and failure to speak what they knew" about Desai's work performance, Eglet said Wednesday. "They chose to replace a good doctor with a known bad doctor. They could have contracted with safer doctors. They chose profits, not safety."
Desai, once a powerful member of the state Board of Medical Examiners, isn't named in the civil lawsuit. He has denied wrongdoing, declared bankruptcy and surrendered his medical license, but faces trial in state court nest month and federal court in May on separate criminal charges stemming from the outbreak. His lawyers have fought for years to prove that he is so incapacitated by strokes and other physical ailments that he is unfit for trial.
State prosecutors accuse Desai of faking his medical conditions in an attempt to escape prosecution.
Eglet and Kemp won hundreds of millions of dollars in civil judgments in 2011 against pharmaceutical companies they blamed for supplying recklessly large 50 milliliter vials of the powerful anesthetic propofol to Desai clinics. Jurors were told in that case that 10 or 20 milliliter doses were commonly needed for outpatient colonoscopy procedures.
Desai and his clinics reached undisclosed settlements with plaintiffs before trial in those cases.
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