Peter A. Smith Credit: Courtesy of Berman and Simmons Trial Attorneys

A Cumberland County jury on Wednesday awarded the parents of a 25-year-old Portland man $6.5 million in a wrongful death lawsuit over his misdiagnosis for Lyme disease in 2017.

Peter A. Smith died of Lyme carditis, which occurs when Lyme disease bacteria enter the tissue of the heart on July 2, 2017. He twice in June 2017 visited Dr. John R. Henson at Mercy Hospital, which is owned by Northern Light Health of Brewer, but was not diagnosed with Lyme disease, according to the family’s legal team.

This is the second verdict in three months for Northern Light Health, which owns 10 hospitals in Maine, that has resulted in a multi-million dollar damage award. In November, an all-white jury awarded David Ako-Annan, a Black man, $3 million in his racial discrimination case in federal court in Bangor. The organization is seeking to have the damages reduced to $800,000.

In Smith’s case, his parents’ Angela Smith, 61 and Richard Smith, 63, of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, sued Henson, Mercy Hospital and Northern Light Health in Cumberland County Superior Court in April 2021. The trial began Jan. 23 at the courthouse in Portland. The jury deliberated for about 3 1/2 hour before announcing its verdict.

Smith, a graduate of Temple University, was living in Portland temporarily on assignment from his employer KPMG as an auditor when he fell ill. He first visited Hanson on June 7, 2017, complaining of a spreading rash, fever, chills, dizziness and a recent headache, the complaint said. Hanson diagnosed him with a rash that was most likely an allergic reaction and a viral infection. The doctor noted, “No signs of Lyme disease.”

The patient returned on June 20, 2017, with similar complaints but was diagnosed with hives. 

Five days later, Smith was so ill that he called an ambulance to Maine Medical Center in Portland, the complaint said. Physicians there immediately diagnosed him with Lyme disease and found it had invaded his heart. Smith was treated and released but died July 2, 2017, in Pennsylvania.

“We are thankful that the jury held Mercy Hospital and Dr. Henson accountable for the needless and tragic death of young Peter Smith,” his parents’ attorneys, Jodi Nofsinger and Susan Faunce of Lewiston, said Thursday. “Peter’s family will be grieving his loss forever. They have some solace in knowing that justice has occurred and hope that this verdict helps to prevent this kind of negligence and wrongful death from happening to anyone else.”

A spokesperson for Northern Light Health said the organization is evaluating what its next legal move will be.

“Mercy Hospital extends its heartfelt sympathy to Mr. Smith’s family and regrets the circumstances that occurred leading to his death,” Edward Gilman said Thursday.

The Smith verdict comes at a time when Northern Light Health is struggling financially. Testimony at Ako-Annan’s trial in November revealed that in 2019 the company was $30 million in the red. In 2020, that deficit rose to $58 million. Figures for 2021 were not discussed in detail but a loss was anticipated while officials hoped to “break even” in 2022, according to testimony.