By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A former Skylights basketball player won part of her lawsuit against Montana State University-Northern, but was not awarded any monetary damages.
A 12-member jury returned the verdict about 9 p.m. Thursday after hearing four days of testimony in the lawsuit Jana Smith filed against the university. The jury found Northern negligent in its care of Smith while she played for the university, but found there was not enough proof that its negligence led to her knee injury. She had sought $130,000 in damages.
Smith, who played for Northern in the 1999-2000 season, filed a lawsuit in 2002 claiming that Bob Denning, an athletic trainer at the university at the time, persuaded her to postpone getting an MRI, scheduled before a Frontier Conference tournament game, that would have prevented her playing. That led to a fractured kneecap and more than $32,000 in medical expenses, including six surgeries, she said.
Smith transferred to Montana State University-Bozeman in the 2000-2001 school year. She redshirted on the Bobcat basketball team, and saw some play in the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 seasons.
She graduated this year, but is eligible to play next season. Smith testified that whether she plays depends, in part, on how much pain her knee causes her.
The suit alleged that the postponement of the MRI was a breach of duty in the university's obligation for reasonable and ordinary care of its athletes, that the negligence led to her knee injury, and that the university owed her compensation for the injury.
Smith asked for $32,000 to cover medical expenses, $40 a day totaling $36,000 for the period from the injury on March 2, 2000, to June 2002, the time of her recovery from her last surgery, $20 a day totaling $20,000 for the period from July 2002 to the end of her potential college basketball career in March 2005, and $2 a day for the rest of her predicted life, totaling $42,000.
In their closing arguments, the attorneys agreed that the key question was what happened on Feb. 25, 2000, when Smith talked to Denning about her visit to Dr. Richard Howland and his physician's assistant, David Crossley, and about the MRI they prescribed.
Dr. Jim Elliot of Billings and Dr. John Campbell, a former team doctor for MSU-Bozeman who worked on her knee after the injury, testified that Smith probably had a stress fracture that led to her kneecap breaking during the March 2, 2002, game against Westminster College in Lewiston, Idaho.
If Smith had had the MRI, she would have sat out the game, her kneecap would have healed and the lawsuit never would have been necessary, Smith's attorney, Tom White of Bozeman, said in his closing argument.
"The fix here was pretty easy," he said.
"There's no doubt they needed her to play and she wanted to play," White added.
Attorney Max Davis of Great Falls, representing the university, painted a different picture of what happened on Feb. 25, 2000.
Howland had prescribed an MRI, but hadn't told Smith not to play before she got it, Davis said.
"On examination, the patient is in no apparent stress," he read from a note the doctor sent to the university, adding that Denning only suggested that Smith postpone the MRI. The decision was Smith's, Davis said.
Even if the MRI had been done, a hairline fracture probably would not have been detected in time to prevent Smith from playing in the game, he said.
Davis added that even though Smith testified she is in pain almost all the time now, she has played for Bozeman with the pain. But Smith is saying that when she reported having pain at Northern, she thinks she should have been prevented from playing, he said.
Smith is saying that "It's OK when they do it Montana State University-Bozeman, but when they do it at Montana State University-Northern it's not," he said.