The verdict: Scenes from the hepatitis C trial

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<p>A conference with the judge. PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>
<p>Lawyers for the plaintiffs compared Sierra Health Services and Health Plan of Nevada to the three monkeys. PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>
<p>Attorneys Robert Eglet and Robert Adams confer with Carl Brunson (awarded $3 million on Friday) and his wife Bonnie ($12 million). PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>
<p>Lawyers for the plaintiffs used images of Lindsay Lohan to urge that the defendants not get away with a wrist slap. PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>

Around half-billion dollars.

That’s the amount a state court jury has awarded in punitive damages in a civil trial stemming from the largest hepatitis C outbreak in Nevada history. Tens of thousands of people were warned in 2008 that they could have been exposed to hepatitis and other communicable diseases at a Las Vegas endoscopy clinic that saved money by ignoring standard medical procedures, including reusing nonsterile drug vials.

The Southern Nevada Health District has estimated that more than 60,000 people were potentially exposed over a four-year period that ended in January 2008.

A jury on Friday awarded $24 million in compensation to three plaintiffs, but lawyers Will Kemp and Robert Eglet were seeking much more in punitive damages from the HMO that referred patients to the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. The $500 million awarded Tuesday represents just a fraction of the $2.5 billion that the attorneys for three plaintiffs asked for.

Dr. Dipak Desai, majority owner of the clinic, faces state and federal criminal court proceedings over the next two months.

Attorney D. Lee Roberts Jr., representing Nevada’s Health Plan of Nevada and Sierra Health Services, the state’s largest HMO, said the jury last week already sent a message that the companies were responsible for “despicable” conduct and “fraud, malice or oppression with a conscious disregard,” so a multibillion-dollar punitive award would be unnecessary. Roberts argued that Desai was responsible for the hepatitis outbreak, not the companies.

The jury awarded one 70-year-old former patient $12 million, her 72-year-old husband $3 million, and a 76-year-old patient $9 million. All three hepatitis cases stemmed from outpatient procedures in 2005.

The insurance companies have promised to appeal.

Eglet and Kemp have already won civil judgments against drug companies that supplied anesthetics to Desai. Desai and his clinics reached undisclosed settlements with plaintiffs before trial in those cases. LAUNCE RAKE