Erie oral surgeon had career-ending slip, fall at hospital. Jury awarded him $3.2 million

A fall in an operating room at Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie has led to a record-setting $3.2 million jury verdict — but the winner of the case is not a patient.

The winner is a longtime Erie oral surgeon who was using the operating room at the time.

The surgeon, John L. Alonge, hurt his back and shoulder when he slipped and fell on a newly mopped floor in the operating room at the hospital in July 2020, according to court records.

He and his wife, Karen, sued in March 2021. They claimed in their personal injury case that Saint Vincent was negligent and that the injuries forced John Alonge, then 65, to retire about three years earlier than he had planned.

Saint Vincent claimed that its staff did nothing wrong, and that Alonge, as an experienced surgeon, should have been "well aware" that the floor would have been mopped during the period between surgeries.

Erie oral surgeon John L. Alonge, shown in an operating room in 2014, won a $3.2 million jury verdict after he sued Saint Vincent Hospital over a fall he took in an operating room in 2020.
Erie oral surgeon John L. Alonge, shown in an operating room in 2014, won a $3.2 million jury verdict after he sued Saint Vincent Hospital over a fall he took in an operating room in 2020.

A jury in Erie County Common Pleas Court swiftly sided with the Alonges. The 12 deliberated about an hour before they found Saint Vincent solely negligent and awarded the Alonges damages of $3.2 million, according to the verdict slip.

The verdict, which was returned shortly before 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, ended a four-day trial, including a day of jury selection, in the courtroom of Judge Erin Connelly Marucci.

Verdict believed to be largest of its kind for Erie County

The verdict compensated the Alonges for past and future economic loss and past and future non-economic loss, including pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation and loss of enjoyment of life, according to the verdict slip. The slip, docketed Friday, shows how the jury broke down the $3.2 million award:

  • $1,441,261 for past economic loss;

  • $320,000 for future economic loss;

  • $750,000 for past non-economic loss;

  • $750,000 for future non-economic loss.

The verdict is believed to be the highest jury award in a slip-and-fall case in Erie County Common Pleas Court, said the Alonges' lawyer, Brendan Lupetin, of Pittsburgh, who said he has researched verdicts in civil cases in Erie County. The $3.2 million verdict is also one of the largest recently returned in Erie County Common Pleas Court.

The largest verdict in the county came in 2011. It was a $21.6 million award against the former Hamot Medical Center, now UPMC Hamot, over the botched delivery of a boy who was born with severe disabilities in November 2006.

Lupetin said he believes Alonge's long career as an oral surgeon — including his many hours of volunteer work at the Northwest Pennsylvania Cleft Palate Institute — and the nature of the injuries contributed to the large verdict. He also said he presented evidence that the Saint Vincent staff was at fault for not placing a sign that would have signaled that the floor in the operating room was wet from mopping.

"A highly respected doctor was injured by absolute clear-cut negligence," Lupetin said in an interview.

Alonge, 68, was not immediately available for comment.

Wet floor leads to incident in operating room

A Saint Vincent spokeswoman said the hospital, part of the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network, would have no comment on the verdict. Pittsburgh-based lawyers with the firm of Burns White represented Saint Vincent.

The lawyers for the hospital relied partly on expert testimony to present their case. They argued, in part, that any "'dangerous condition' which caused plaintiff to allegedly slip, trip and/or fall was an open and obvious condition to the plaintiff and all other invitees," according to the hospital's answer to the lawsuit filed in court.

The incident happened on July 22, 2020, according to court records. Alonge, an independently contracted surgeon who practiced with Oral Surgery of Erie, had operating privileges at Saint Vincent since 1994.

Alonge had three surgeries scheduled that day, according to court records. He had completed the first two and was preparing for the third when he fell, according to court records.

According to the Alonges' pretrial statement, Alonge had left the operating room to check on a patient between surgeries. The statement said he returned to the operating room where, unbeknownst to him, a maintenance worker was mopping the floor. The worker had his back to Alonge and was wearing scrubs, according to the statement.

An Erie oral surgeon won a $3.2 million verdict in a slip-and-fall case in Erie County Common Pleas Court on Thursday.
An Erie oral surgeon won a $3.2 million verdict in a slip-and-fall case in Erie County Common Pleas Court on Thursday.

The worker did not place a wet-floor sign in the room, and it was the hospital's policy for maintenance workers to place wet-floor signs "after the process was complete," Lupetin, the Alonges' lawyer, claimed in the pretrial statement.

"After taking a few steps into the room," according to the statement, "Dr. Alonge's foot encountered the wet mopped floor. This caused Dr. Alonge to slip and fall to the ground suddenly and violently. Dr. Alonge injured his back and shoulder as a result."

Alonge finished the surgery but later went to the emergency room due to pain from the fall, Lupetin said in an interview. He said Alonge suffered chronic shoulder and back pain and injured several discs in his lower back. Alonge had to have the injured discs fused, and the pain and his inability to fully use his shoulder forced him to retire early under the orders of his personal physician, Lupetin said.

"This is a guy who absolutely loved what he did. It was his identity," Lupetin said. "He was going to work until he was at least 68."

Alonge, Saint Vincent dispute responsibility for fall

Saint Vincent claimed that any injuries were due to Alonge's negligence. In their pretrial statement, the hospital's lawyers emphasized that Alonge fell in the operating suite as he was preparing for his third surgery of the day.

"He was therefore well aware of all measures undertaken as part of the 'turnover procedure' to thoroughly guarantee that the entire Suite was sanitized, including damp mopping of the subject floor," according to Saint Vincent's pretrial statement. "Notably, this 'turnover procedure' had been accomplished following each of his two previous surgeries that day."

"Unfortunately," according to the statement, when Alonge walked into the operating room to start his third surgery, "he was either on his phone or reading documentation, and was otherwise inattentive to where he was walking. He slipped and fell backward onto his back and allegedly incurred injuries.

"It will be proved that a number of his complaints pre-existed and that he had multiple co-morbidities unrelated to any injuries suffered as a result of the fall."

The lawyers for Saint Vincent also developed evidence that the maintenance worker who mopped the floor followed procedure in putting the wet-floor sign out after he had finished mopping, according to court records. The records show that the maintenance worker also followed procedure by parking his housecleaning cart outside the operating room, signaling that the room was being cleaned.

Lupetin successfully argued at trial that Saint Vincent's procedures were lacking and that Alonge was severely injured as a result.

Alonge and his wife decided to sue as a matter of "accountability," Lupetin said in an interview. "It was more of a principle thing than anything else."

Of the $3.2 million verdict, Lupetin said, "it was a very good outcome for a very worthy person."

Another court case: Disclosure of disputed statements in Hertel & Brown case sparks request to toss indictment

Contact Ed Palattella at Follow him on X @ETNpalattella.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie oral surgeon wins $3.2 million verdict after he fell at hospital