On Sept.15, 2022, a Cascade County jury awarded $6 million to Joey Zahara in his medical malpractice lawsuit against a local neurologist. Defense counsel then filed a motion to have that award reduced to the constitutionally mandated cap of $250,000.
Over a year later, the judge in the case has still not made a ruling on it, but no matter which way he sides the losing party will likely appeal to the Montana Supreme Court to rule on the law’s constitutionality. In the nearly 30 years the cap has existed, Montana's highest court has never ruled on the law, though one case came close.
Vision has never been a strength for Jaimi Espy.
"I was three, maybe four years old when I got my first pair of glasses," Espy said. "Before that, I didn’t know there were birds on trees, or power lines, or anything like that."
Espy always struggled with near-sightedness. The severity meant LASIK wasn’t an option, but in 2006, her Miles City optometrist told her about a new procedure that could be a lifeline: permanent lenses installed inside the back of the eye. The optometrist referred her to Dr. Brian LaGreca in Billings.
"The risk factor seemed very reasonable to me," Espy said, "so I elected to go ahead with the surgery. He operated on me that day."
After two very uncomfortable procedures, it was a whole new world.
"I had very sharp, clear, crisp vision," Espy remembered. "It was amazing - actually beyond 20/20 vision. And for almost eight years, I didn’t have any problems specific to my lenses that I knew of."
But then came Dec. 19, 2013.
"I was slicing a turkey. I moved my head just a little bit, and I heard and felt a sound in my left eye. I heard a plink," she said. "My vision immediately decreased."
The lens had detached and was dangling inside her left eye. She immediately called Dr. LaGreca, who couldn’t see her for two weeks. At the appointment, Espy said he recommended re-positioning the lens instead of removing it.
"I listened to his advice and had the repair surgery that afternoon," she said. "The recovery was not good. My vision was never good again - ever - after the surgery."
Espy struggled for months: blurry vision combined with sharp, stabbing pain. She sought second and third opinions, with a Rapid City ophthalmologist eventually telling her the lens had to come out.
"By the time I had the lens removed in the left eye, I didn’t have any meaningful vision in that eye," Espy said. "I couldn't see out of it. It was toast."
A year later, another group of doctors at the Mayo Clinic gave her the worst news.
"The cornea specialist that I saw told me that within two years my right eye would be completely blind," she said.
Since then, she’s had 15 surgeries, including two cornea transplants on her right eye which saved three percent of her vision. Today she says she sees only a small pinhole of vision, just below dead center.
Espy gets through most days remarkably well - she recently became a real estate agent in Miles City. But her life will be immeasurably harder forever. Espy filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. LaGreca in January 2017, after some extensive research. An expert analysis confirmed her suspicions.
"Results said that there were a number of contra-indications for the lens to be implanted," she recalled. "Of the top four contra-indications, I had three prior to the initial surgery in 2006. That means I was not a candidate for this procedure."
Shortly after getting those results, Espy and Dr. LaGreca were called to a hearing in front of the Montana Medical Legal Panel. The MMLP is a mandatory step for any medical malpractice case in Montana, where the plaintiff and defendant lay out their case for a group of three doctors and three lawyers.
"Upon walking in the room, it was a very unfriendly environment," Espy said. "I thought, ‘This is not going to go well for me.’”
"It’s a wonderful process," said Jean Branscum, executive director of the MMLP. "It benefits both sides of the party."
Next in our series, we’ll explain more about the panel and dive into the conclusion of Espy’s case.
Note: MTN reached out to multiple healthcare facilities for this series and were directed to the Montana Medical Association. MTN also reached out to multiple insurance companies with no response.