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Scales of Justice

A Missoula physician is being sued for nearly $3.9 million for an allegedly botched surgery that poisoned a patient with her own body fluids.

Butte couple Eletha and John Suttey allege that in 2014, Missoula gastroenterologist Eric Trevelline cut Eletha Suttey during an operation, "causing at least a liter of poisonous body fluids to flow into and onto her organs.”

Afterwards, they allege, Trevelline and other doctors failed to diagnose and treat the cut and the flow of poison through Suttey’s organs, and “tried to distract from the truth of the health issues and negligence by mis-prioritizing and covering up what happened to the Plaintiff.”

In the meantime, Trevelline faces other legal problems. Thursday morning, he was booked into the Missoula County Jail on one count of assault with a weapon. A lawsuit by a male nurse who accused him of sexual misconduct is ongoing. He was convicted of driving under the influence in Idaho last September, and sentenced to 12 months of supervised probation.

Earlier this year, the Montana Board of Medical Examiners suspended his license, citing drug abuse and mental health issues. In a divorce filing this past May, Trevelline listed his current occupation as “unemployed."

In addition to Trevelline, the Sutteys have sued Michael Druschel and Nicholas Blake, medical residents at the time of the surgery, UM's Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana Program, and faculty member Darin Bell. Court filings do not specify the role that Bell, Druschel and Blake played in Suttey’s treatment.

But they do allege that the UM Residency Program and Dr. Bell “negligently failed to supervise, direct and monitor the actions and lack of actions by Dr. Druschel and Dr. Blake.”

The complaint said Suttey required three additional surgeries, a 56-day stay in Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, two months in a Billings advanced care hospital and three more months in a Butte nursing home. On top of all this, the couple allege, John Suttey “had to twice save (Eletha’s) life when she vomited and aspirated.”

They’ve claimed roughly $867,000 in medical and out-of-pocket expenses, plus an additional $3 million in non-economic damages.

Their pursuit of these funds is moving slowly through the courts. Under state law, a review board called the Montana Medical Legal Panel must decide whether “substantial evidence” that malpractice occurred exists, and whether there's “a reasonable medical probability” that it injured the patient. A decision in the negative does not bar a lawsuit, and is not admissible as evidence in court.

The panel completed its work on the Sutteys' case in July 2017, and they sued the following month (the complaint against one of the defendants, Daniel Propp, was later dismissed). The pretrial proceedings aren’t scheduled to conclude until June 2020 — nearly six years after the alleged poisoning.

Darin Bell remains a UM faculty member, but the other named defendants have moved on in the years since the surgery. Nicholas Blake and Michael Druschel both graduated from the residency program in 2017 and now practice in Oregon and Washington state, respectively.

Neither the Sutteys, the non-UM defendants, or any of their attorneys responded to requests for comment. University spokesperson Paula Short said the university had no comment on the lawsuit. She confirmed via email that “Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana carries malpractice insurance with a coverage limit of $1 million per claim.”

In their responses, the defendants deny that the physicians’ actions caused Suttey’s claimed injuries, and raise the possibility that those injuries “may have been proximately caused by pre-existing conditions of Plaintiff Elethea (sic) Suttey,” or by the plaintiffs’ own negligence. They also take issue with the couple's claim for $3 million in non-economic damages, pointing out in their responses that state law caps these damages at $250,000.

“Montana, in the mid-1990s, passed a statute that gives doctors essentially a pass on any verdict in excess of $250,000 in economic damages," explained Justin Starin, a Missoula malpractice attorney who is not involved in this case. That limit’s been challenged, he said, but not yet taken up by the Supreme Court. “Until held otherwise, the current state of the law (is that) non-economic damages may not exceed $250,000.”

The $3.8 million figure, he said, is “probably a rough guesstimate of what the damages would be. … I think it’s pretty standard to have a large number in the statement of damages, but then cases often settle for less than the amount that’s demanded.”

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