BOSTON — Boston Children’s Hospital wasn't medically negligent in its treatment of a Connecticut teen who spent nearly a year in state custody after doctors suspected her parents of medical child abuse, a jury in Boston concluded Thursday.
The verdict in the medical malpractice lawsuit brought by the family of Justina Pelletier capped a high profile dispute that drew national media attention and sparked a broader debate over parental rights.
“This is unbelievable pain, and, really, no family should ever have to go through this,” said Lou Pelletier, Justina’s father. “We are extremely disappointed with the jury’s decision today. It was really hurtful, I guess, ultimately for Justina. She’s the one that’s really had to live through all this.”
Doctors and Pelletier’s parents disagreed on whether the cause of her numerous health problems, which included an inability to walk, talk or swallow, were true medical ailments, as her parents maintained, or were largely psychological.
The Suffolk County jury reached its verdict after less than six hours of deliberating Thursday.
The trial spanned five weeks and centered on whether Pelletier's parents were unfairly barred from their daughter’s treatment and whether Pelletier's separation from her family was detrimental to her health.
“The jury’s decision affirms what Boston Children’s Hospital has always believed: that our clinicians provided Justina Pelletier high quality, compassionate care, and always acted in the best interest of her health and well-being," the hospital said in a statement.
Pelletier's lawyers didn't respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.
Now 21-years-old, Pelletier was 14 when she was placed in state custody in Massachusetts in 2013.
She had been diagnosed at Tufts Medical Center in Boston with mitochondrial disease, a disorder that affects cellular energy production.
But doctors at Boston Children's Hospital suspected it was a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and that Pelletier's psychological needs were being ignored by her parents in favor of unnecessary medical tests and procedures.
When her parents rejected that diagnosis and tried to take her back to Tufts, the allegations of medical child abuse were raised, and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families took custody of her.
She was eventually returned to the care of her parents in 2014 after a judge's order.
Pelletier’s parents filed their civil lawsuit against the hospital and four of their daughter’s doctors and caregivers in 2016, claiming they violated their civil rights.
The family’s attorneys said the decision to place the girl in state custody was based on intentional lies, bias against the parents, and an unfounded diagnosis that blamed the parents for their daughter’s poor health.
The hospital says they welcomed the verdict, releasing a statement that said, in part:
“The jury’s decision affirms what Boston Children’s Hospital has always believed: that our clinicians provided Justina Pelletier high quality, compassionate care, and always acted in the best interest of her health and well-being. This same standard of excellence guides the care we provide each child who comes to our hospital.”
Justina, her father says, is now a passionate horseback rider and accomplished artist finishing her last year in school.
“We are a strong family, and with our love for each other, we’re going to persevere,” said Lou Pelletier. “We will focus now as a goal to try to help other people to ensure that no other family has to go through this again.”
Lou Pelletier went on to say the family will continue to be a voice for other families in similar situations and that they plan on revisiting Justina’s Law, which “prohibits the use of federal funds to conduct or support treatment or research involving a ward of the state in which the individual’s health is subjected to greater than minimal risk with no or minimal prospect of direct benefit.”