Jury rules in favor of doctors

A traffic citation and social media posts were instrumental in exonerating two south central Indiana physicians accused of medical malpractice.

In less than an hour Friday afternoon, a Bartholomew Circuit Court jury ruled in favor of retired ophthalmologist Joseph W. Conner of Columbus and Seymour family physician D. Robert Baker, court officials confirmed.

During the five-day trial, Crothersville resident Morgan Ashley, 27, claimed she became legally blind as a result of receiving sub-standard medical care from both Conner and Baker.

Her 34-year-old husband, Brandon Ashley, contended as a co-plaintiff that he should be compensated for losing services of his wife.

But after Morgan Ashley testified Friday, Baker’s attorney, Jon M. Pinnick of Indianapolis, introduced recent posts on her Facebook site where she described doing household chores such as laundry and cleaning her residence, court officials confirmed.

According to her complaint, Morgan Ashley claimed to have been legally blind since November 2010. During the trial, family members testified she could only read one letter at a time when it was enlarged to full size on a computer screen.

However, evidence was introduced that while Ashley was residing in Austin five months after she claims to have become blind, she was issued a traffic citation in Scott County for driving without a seat belt, court records confirm.

In response, the couple testified last week it was actually the husband behind the wheel. But the April 9, 2011, ticket clearly stated it was Morgan Ashley who was driving at the time, court officials confirmed.

While the latest complaint was filed in Columbus on May 22, 2013, the original litigation was filed in Jackson Circuit Court on April 14, 2011 — and dismissed by the judge one year later, according to court documents.

However, the decision in Brownstown kept the door open for the case to be refiled elsewhere, the documents state.

“It took five years for us to have our day in court — and a just verdict was obtained,” Conner said.

Several expert witnesses were called to the stand who concurred with Conner’s original diagnosis and treatment for the woman.

In her complaint, Morgan Ashley did agree Conner “properly and quickly” determined she suffered from a rare condition that amounts to a non-malignant growth near the brain that causes excess spinal fluid to press on the optic nerves.

However, her attorney, Patrick W. Harrison of Columbus, argued the two weeks between her first visit to Conner and the treatment, as well as another two weeks before the first follow-up visit, was negligently long.

The retired ophthalmologist also was accused by the couple of not providing sufficient medication, court records state.

Not only did the jury reject those arguments, but it also did not accept allegations that Baker made earlier determinations without thorough exams, as well as that he over-prescribed antibiotics, court records state.

Even after Conner received word that the couple was suing him, he still took steps to help Morgan Ashley seek disability payments.

Conner, a licensed physician for 36 years, had his practice in Columbus until opening Conner Smith Eye Care on West Tipton Street in Seymour in 2000.

He retired from his practice in June 2014, family members said.

During the trial, attorneys for the physicians presented what they contended were recent photographs taken and posted by Morgan Ashley on Facebook, along with her own descriptions, that indicate she still has vision, according to a court reporter.

While the jury heard the descriptions, the actual photographs were not allowed into evidence by special judge Richard W. Poynter of Jackson County, the court reporter said.

In the 2013 complaint, Harrison wrote that an opinion issued by a medical review panel would support his clients’ claims.

However, Conner issued a statement Sunday that the official medical review panel actually determined three years ago there was no malpractice by the two physicians.

Since the ophthalmologist resides in the Columbus area, state statutes provided Harrison with the legal grounds for having the case heard by a jury in Columbus.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.