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Suit Targets Care at VA

November 20, 2011, by Terrie Morgan-Besecker (Times Leader) – To the U.S. Marines, former Sgt. Stanley Laskowski was a highly regarded solider, an effective leader who had “limitless potential.” A veteran of the war in Iraq in 2003, Laskowski earned several medals and proved himself to be an invaluable asset during several major battles in the initial invasion of Baghdad, his superiors said. But just six months after he was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2007, the decorated veteran found himself in a jail cell, charged with breaking into a pharmacy to steal drugs. How had he fallen so far in such a short time? Was it an act of a good soldier gone bad, who knowingly broke the law to feed his addiction to the painkiller, Vicodin? Or was it a plea for help from a veteran tormented by memories of war, who acted in desperation after his attempts to obtain mental health counseling were ignored? That’s the question a federal judge must answer as he considers a $10 million medical malpractice lawsuit Laskowski and his wife, Marisol, filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs relating to his treatment at its medical center in Plains Township. The lawsuit, filed last year, alleges medical professionals botched the mental health treatment provided to Laskowski after he was diagnosed in April 2007 with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition that results from experiencing a severe traumatic event. The most common symptoms include fear of crowds, nightmares, flashbacks and mood swings. Similar lawsuits The suit is the latest in a growing number of actions nationwide that have been filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs for allegedly providing substandard care to veterans suffering PTSD. In 2009 the VA agreed to pay $350,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Jeffrey Lucey of Massachusetts, who committed suicide after he became increasingly despondent over failed efforts to treat him for his mental health problems. Attorney Cristobal Bonifaz of Conway, Mass., who represented Lucey’s family, said his case paved the way for other suits because it defined the legal basis upon which a family or soldier could seek to recover damages. Under federal law, the U.S. government is immune from lawsuits relating to injuries a soldier suffered during combat, Bonifaz said. “The focus of the case was not what happened in Iraq, but what happened here,” Bonifaz said. “I was not claiming damages for the PTSD itself. That was caused by the war. I was saying he had PTSD and the VA had a duty to treat him and they didn’t.” That’s the key issue in Laskowski’s case. Laskowski, 33, of Carbondale, has been declared 100 percent disabled as a result of his PTSD, which resulted from his experiences during a 5-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. Laskowski was seen at the VA’s medical center in Plains Township from April to August 2007, when he was arrested. In that entire time he was given only medications and never provided any counseling, according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Dan Brier of Myers, Brier and Kelly in Scranton. Lawsuit allegations The lawsuit contends the lack of proper care caused Laskowski’s PTSD to progress unabated. That led him to self medicate with alcohol and drugs. His break-in at an Olyphant pharmacy was a desperate attempt to obtain drugs he believed would relieve his symptoms. The key legal issue in the case, which will be heard in a non-jury trial, is whether the VA’s alleged negligence was a direct and proximate cause of the injuries Laskowski claims to have suffered, which include mental anguish, past and future lost earnings and medical expenses. A psychological expert for the VA has acknowledged the care provided to Laskowski fell below expected medical standards, according to court documents filed in the case. Vince Riccardo, spokesman for the VA, declined comment on the suit, citing the hospital’s policy not to discuss pending litigation. In court records, the VA has denied liability, arguing there was no way medical staff there could foresee that Laskowski would commit a crime. The VA also contends Laskowski initially downplayed the severity of his symptoms to medical staff. In a pre-trial memorandum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Thiel said Laskowski admitted he first experienced PTSD symptoms shortly after he returned from Iraq, but didn’t seek treatment until 2007 out of fear the stigma could impact his military career. There’s also a legal dispute over whether Laskowski is barred from seeking damages because his alleged injuries were caused by his own action in burglarizing the pharmacy. Brier said the VA has placed too much emphasis on the burglary. The issue, he said, is not so much the crime Laskowski committed, but what caused him to commit the crime. “The incident at the pharmacy was a dramatic manifestation of his mistreated PTSD,” Brier said. “If he had received the care he was entitled to from the VA, he would not be 100 percent disabled today and he would not have resorted to painkillers to avoid the emotional horrors of his combat-related PTSD.”