In opening arguments in Suffolk Superior Court, John Martin, the attorney for Linda and Louis Pelletier, told jurors that in 2013, the hospital and its providers disregarded the advice of their daughter’s physicians at Tufts Medical Center, where she was being treated for mitochondrial disease, a failure of cell compartments responsible for creating most of the energy needed to support organ function.
Justina Pelletier, now 21, sat quietly in a wheelchair Monday next to her parents and sister as Martin said that Children’s doctors believed that her headaches, difficulty walking and gastrointestinal pain stemmed from a psychiatric illness.
When her parents disagreed and tried to have her discharged, the hospital reported them to the state Department of Children and Families, accusing them of medical abuse, Martin said.
“Instead of looking at it as something that could be helped by the parents,” he said of her condition, “they were looking at it as something that could be harmed by them.”
Pelletier spent the better part of a year at Children’s in a locked psychiatric ward, with limited contact allowed with her parents and ultimately no marked improvement in her condition, Martin said,
“This child is terrified of being taken away,” he said, “and this is something that’s going to stay with her for the rest of her life.”
Ellen Cohen, the attorney for Children’s, countered that while at the hospital, Pelletier would present differently when her family was in the room; she would slump in her chair and not talk.
By the time she left the hospital, she was eating, brushing her teeth and interacting with people, Cohen said.
John Cassidy, the attorney for Dr. Alice Newton, said that medical child abuse “does not have to be the product of intention.”
“The parents or caregivers may have the best intentions but may be contributing to the over-medicalization of a child,” Cassidy said,
In 2016, Pelletier’s parents nevertheless filed suit against the hospital and Dr. Colleen Ryan, a psychiatrist; Dr. Jurriaan Peters, a neurologist; Simona Bujoreanu, a psychologist; and Newton, a child abuse specialist who now heads Massachusetts General Hospital’s Child Protection Program.
As mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, Cohen said, they were legally required to contact the Department of Children and Families when Pelletier’s parents tried to remove her from the hospital against medical advice.
In order to find the defendants guilty of medical malpractice, jurors must find a preponderance of evidence that a doctor was negligent, that Pelletier suffered injuries and that a doctor caused those injuries, Judge Anthony M. Campo told the jury.
In order to find that Children’s or the doctors violated the Pelletiers’ civil rights, he said, the jury must find that the greater weight of the evidence shows that the defendants interfered with those rights and did so by threats, coercion or intimidation.
The trial resumes Wednesday and is expected to last approximately one month.