The U.S. government readily acknowledges former Sgt. Stanley Laskowski was a "stellar" Marine who served his country with valor during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Why, then, just six months after he was discharged from the military, did he burglarize a pharmacy and steal prescription painkillers?
It's a $5 million question, the answer to which could have significant ramifications for the Department of Veterans Affairs nationwide, attorneys for Laskowski and the government agree.
That's the amount Laskowski, 34, and his wife, Marisol, have asked U.S. District Judge James Munley to award them following the conclusion Tuesday of a non-jury medical malpractice trial against the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Township.
The Carbondale couple is seeking economic and compensatory damages for the allegedly improper treatment Stanley Laskowski received after he returned from Iraq suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, a mental condition that results from experiencing serious trauma. That negligence left Laskowski permanently disabled and unable to work, they claim.
Munley took the case under advisement Tuesday and will issue a ruling at a later date.
The importance of Munley's verdict goes far beyond the Laskowskis, however, as it could open the "floodgates" for malpractice claims by other military personnel and others who suffer from PTSD, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Michael Thiel said in his closing argument.
Thiel acknowledged during the trial that the VA deviated from medical standards by failing to provide Laskowski psychotherapy when he began treatment. The government contends Laskowski is wholly or at least partially responsible for his injuries because he withheld key information regarding his symptoms.
"If you lack information you should not be held responsible for making a wrong decision," Thiel said.
Should Munley find in Laskowski's favor, it would send a message to all PTSD sufferers that they can hide their symptoms "and the law will protect you" and make sure they are "paid their potential salary for the rest of your life," Thiel said.
The statement drew an angry response from Laskowski's attorney, Dan Brier.
"How dare they come in here and try to intimidate you about opening the floodgates," Brier said to Munley in a raised voice. "Maybe the floodgates need to be opened. The VA needs to get the message . . . these people need to get care and get good care."
Laskowski, who was treated at the Plains Township VA from April to August 2007, denies he withheld any information about his symptoms. He and his wife said they repeatedly called the VA to tell them his PTSD symptoms -- which included vivid nightmares, flashbacks and thoughts of suicide -- were worsening. The medical staff continually adjusted his medications, but never brought him in for counseling.
"They changed his medicines over the phone," Brier said. "The man wants to put his head through a window … A veterinarian doesn't treat a dog that way."
The lack of care led Laskowski to self medicate with alcohol and prescription painkillers, Brier said. His symptoms exploded on Aug. 17, 2007, when he broke into a Clarks Summit pharmacy to steal medications to feed his addiction.
The VA's negligence has caused the Laskowskis, who have four young children, extreme financial and emotional harm, Brier said. Laskowski continues to suffer from PTSD. He is unable to be around crowds and lives a life of "total avoidance and isolation."
Brier asked Munley to award the couple $2.5 million for past and future lost earnings and $2.5 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress.
U.S. District Judge James Munley directed attorneys in the case to file legal briefs outlining their positions by Oct. 8. The judge will review the briefs and issue his verdict at a later date.