In what is being called the biggest personal-injury verdict in state history, a Middlesex County jury awarded nearly $40 million yesterday to the family of a Dracut boy born with severe brain damage in 1996 after a tramautic delivery at a Lowell hospital.
After deliberating for about 6 1/2 hours, the jury found Dr. Jacqueline Halladay, an obstetrician and gynecologist, negligent for having waited more than five hours to deliver the baby, Philip Antonelli Jr., in a caesarean section, despite signs of severe fetal distress.
The boy, now 8, has cerebral palsy and functions at the level of a 2- to 4-year-old. His mother, Lisa Antonelli, said she felt relieved and vindicated by the malpractice judgment against Halladay.
''We feel pretty much validated," Antonelli said. ''All this time, we thought that things had been wrong [with] the quality of care that we received. And now we know that's the case."
Her lawyer, Robert Higgins, said the verdict, which exceeds a $30 million award to a Randolph mother and her brain-damaged child in 1992, apparently stemmed from the severity of Philip Antonelli's injuries and the care he will need for the rest of his life.
Halladay's lawyer, Kenneth D. Weiss, declined to comment yesterday. In a memorandum submitted to Middlesex Superior Court before trial, he said that Halladay had done nothing wrong in the delivery at Saints Memorial Medical Center in Lowell and that she could have done nothing to prevent the injuries.
Halladay -- who now practices medicine in the Chapel Hill, N.C., area, according to Higgins -- could not be reached for comment. The hospital was not a defendant in the case.
Lisa Antonelli, now 41, went to Saints Memorial Medical Center around 9 p.m. on Nov. 7, 1996, when she was 38 weeks pregnant, which is considered full term, said Higgins, of the firm Lubin & Meyer. She was not in labor, but was concerned that she could not feel the fetus moving.
Halladay, who Higgins said had completed her residency only that June and who had joined a medical practice in August, was on call for the delivery.
The doctor performed two tests that found the fetus to be in distress, Higgins said.
By 1:30 a.m., Higgins said, the doctor should have ordered an emergency caesarean because the fetus was being deprived of oxygen. But Halladay decided to give Antonelli the drug Pitocin to cause contractions for a vaginal delivery.
When the fetus's heart rate slowed to a dangerous level at 3:40 a.m., Higgins said, Halladay ordered a caesarean, but the procedure did not take place until 7:05 a.m. because Halladay still did not think it was an emergency.
Halladay testified that she went into another room in the interim and at one point, Higgins said yesterday, ''most likely went to sleep."
''We thought it was wrong that she wasn't taking him right away," Lisa Antonelli said yesterday. ''We didn't understand why they were waiting."
Twenty minutes after Philip Antonelli was born, Higgins said, the baby suffered a seizure and was then placed in an incubator.
He was transferred to New England Medical Center for treatment of massive bleeding in the brain, which probably resulted from a lack of oxygen.
Antonelli -- who with her husband, Philip Antonelli, testified at trial -- attributed Halladay's actions to inexperience.
''I don't think that she intentionally did this," Antonelli said. ''But unfortunately, back then, she was [in a position] above her qualifications."
Today her son needs help dressing and showering. His speech is garbled, and he can generally be understood only by his parents, his mother said. He walks with braces and has a wobbly gait. He has no control over his right hand and has a shunt in his head to drain fluid.
Nonetheless, Antonelli said, he attends a Dracut elementary school, where he is entering the third grade. ''Socially, he excels," she said. ''He's a happy guy and gets everybody to love him."
Antonelli's husband is a loan officer for a mortage company, and she is a stay-at-home mother. She said that she and her husband -- who also have a 5-year-old daughter, Molly -- hope that the verdict, which cannot be appealed under the agreement, means that their son can obtain appropriate care after they die.
''The reason we did this was to make sure he would be taken care of, no matter what happens to us," she said.
Although the jury awarded almost $40 million, including interest, the Antonelli family will receive less than that. Higgins said lawyers for both sides agreed during deliberations that if the jury sided with the Antonellis, Halladay would be liable only for the maximum covered by her malpractice insurance policy. Higgins said both sides had agreed not to disclose that sum.
Despite the public perception that multimillion-dollar judgments are widespread, Massachusetts juries have appeared to be increasingly skeptical about personal-injury claims, which makes yesterday's award that much more startling, said David Yas, publisher and editor-in-chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
''More than ever, it takes extraordinary circumstances to get a hefty award like that," he said. ''I certainly can't remember anything that high."
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.