Mitochondrial Disease Patient’s Parents Lose Law Suit Against Four Doctors and Boston Children’s Hospital


The Boston Globe recently interviewed the principals in a case brought by the Pelletier family against the Boston Children’s Hospital.

The article gives details about a family’s charge of malpractice against the hospital and four of its doctors. The accusations were that the parent’s civil rights were violated and that their wheelchair-bound daughter was abused by the hospital’s staff.

The accused physicians were Justina Pelletier’s psychiatrist, psychologist, neurologist, and pediatrician. All four doctors were regularly in attendance at the trial.

One of the thirteen jurors at the trial agreed to be interviewed and spoke on the condition of anonymity. He gave some insight into the case.

The basis of the trial was whether or not Justina’s condition was a physical disorder or, as the doctors claimed, included mental health involvement.

At Boston Children’s Hospital

Justina was rushed to the Children’s Hospital in February 2013. She had previously been treated at Tufts Medial Center where she was diagnosed as having mitochondrial disease. Justina’s older sister has also been diagnosed with the disease, which is incurable. Mitochondrial disease is not well understood by the medical community other than being characterized by mutated cells.

Justina exhibits symptoms which include slurred speech, abdominal pain, and the inability to talk, walk, or even swallow. Her physicians at Children’s hospital recommended a separation from her parents so that she could focus on therapy. The therapy would include intensive psychological treatment.

The plan the doctors has mapped out was to teach Justina to be healthy and not to think of herself as a sick child.

Not a Rock Solid Case

The thirty-four-year old juror explained that initially it did seem as if the defendants and their associates had taken the Pelletier’s daughter away.

The trial continued for well over a year and as it progressed the evidence presented by the plaintiff’s lawyers appeared grossly inadequate. Evidence from both sides exposed a more complex situation.

The Pelletier’s lawyers brought in expert witnesses. However, the defendant’s lawyer quickly pointed out that the witnesses fell short of having the expected expertise.   The Plaintiff’s witnesses were:

  • a philosopher
  • a rural ER doctor, retired
  • a physician who never had children as patients

Trial Exhibits

The jury, consisting of 6 men and 7 women, heard hours of testimony from about 24 witnesses. The testimony included material from 11 boxes of Justina’s medical records and also emails sent and received by doctors at the hospital. One email that stood out from the others referred to the Pelletiers as ‘evil’.

The Plaintiff’s Argument

The Pelletiers filed the civil lawsuit in 2016 claiming that the hospital, four doctors, and Justina’s caregivers violated the parent’s civil rights by conspiring to have the Department of Children and Families (DCF) take Justina away from them and preventing her from receiving treatment.

The Plaintiffs’ lawyers claimed that the referral to the DCF was fraught with lies and bias towards her parents. The Pelletiers were accused of being responsible for their daughter’s poor health and symptoms.

The Pelletiers claimed that the hospital and its doctors were negligent for ignoring treatment recommended for Justina at Tufts Medical Center.

The Defendants’ Argument

Doctors were in agreement as they testified at the trial that Justina’s parents called psychiatric treatment “psychological baloney” and treated doctors and staff in a demeaning manner. The parents were also described as demanding and very difficult. The Pelletiers, according to various testimony, disputed what the doctors would tell them.

The juror who was interviewed said that most people on the jury felt that the Pelletier family was problematic and felt sorry for Justina.

The Verdict

Lou Pelletier and older daughter Jennifer attended the trial the day of the verdict along with their supporters. His wife and Justina remained at home.

The jury found the hospital, the four doctors, and caregivers “not guilty”.

Lou Pelletier said quietly that it was painful to hear the decision and it will take a while to recover. He did say that he had hoped their ordeal would somehow help others.

None of the doctors who were in attendance commented on the verdict. However, a hospital spokesman said that the decision of the jury affirmed that its clinicians gave Justina Pelletier compassionate care and acted in her best interest.

The juror said that he and the other jurors, although they had empathy for Justina, had to consider all the evidence in forming a unanimous decision. He said that the evidence just did not “square up.”

What are your thoughts about the jury’s decision in this case? Share your stories, thoughts, and hopes with the Patient Worthy community!

Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia four years ago. He was treated with a methylating agent While he was being treated with a hypomethylating agent, Rose researched investigational drugs being developed to treat relapsed/refractory AML.

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