From Emergency Room to Courtroom
Registered nurse Tracey Dellacona now reps patients in med-mal cases
Published in 2021 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 12, 2021
Updated on February 17, 2021
Not long after a patient arrived at the emergency room with a kidney infection, her fever soared to an alarming 106 degrees. Critical care nurse Tracey Dellacona immediately turned off the antibiotic IV and instructed staff to pack the young woman in ice while she phoned the patient’s physician, whose office was connected to the hospital by a walkway tunnel.
The doctor’s nurse explained that her boss was busy seeing another patient but Dellacona didn’t give up. “After I called twice within five minutes, I called back and said, ‘If you don’t go get’—I won’t tell you exactly what I said—’him on the phone, I’m going to call a code,’” Dellacona recalls. “And he came immediately. And it was, as I suspected, a reaction to the antibiotic. And he thanked me for having it turned off and getting him over there.”
As an RN, Dellacona was known for persisting on behalf of her patients. Since 1994, she’s done the same for her clients as a med-mal plaintiff attorney.
A Mississippi native, Dellacona originally planned to be a veterinarian but switched gears after realizing it would be tough to start a family and a vet career at the same time. “I have a Type-A personality,” she says. “I don’t believe in doing something halfway.”
Nursing seemed like a more viable option. “It was almost like a forensic-type job in that I was trying to not only take care of people but also figure out what was going on when they complained of different things.”
After six years at three hospitals in Mississippi and North Carolina, though, she watched helplessly as a fellow nurse took the fall for a physician’s mistake. Around the same time, a North Carolina attorney hired Dellacona to help him decipher some medical records. Impressed, he told her, “You should go to law school.”
The plaintiff’s side, she says, was a natural choice. “Clients seemed like patients to me. I felt that things needed to be fixed or made better. You can’t bring somebody back who’s passed away due to medical malpractice or some other traumatic, negligent event. But you can help change the lives of the people that are here. And if it’s somebody who’s severely injured, you can make their quality of life better.”
With co-counsel, Dellacona has successfully handled more than 1,000 cases, and currently devotes 80% of her time to medical malpractice and 20% to catastrophic accidents. She’s snared a $5.2 million trial verdict for a spinal injury case and a $20 million settlement in a trucking accident. One client, whose legs were amputated due to an ER misdiagnosis, was offered $100,000 by her insurance company. “I was incensed,” Dellacona says. She got $5 million via jury verdict. When the defense appealed, the state Supreme Court upheld the decision. She adds: “We were able to get even more money for her with the interest that was paid.”
Her nursing background gives Dellacona an edge. Most of the time, when interviewing a client or reviewing a test result, she says, “I know exactly what happened.” Likewise, a missing or misconstrued detail in a medical record can throw up a red flag. “When I’m in a deposition, and some nurse or physician’s across from me and they’re telling me some story, I’ll know it’s wrong immediately, whereas maybe somebody who does not have a medical background would not pick up on that right away.”
At the same time, Dellacona rarely mentions her nursing experience in court because she says it wouldn’t be appropriate. But people pick up on it anyway. “I’ve had jurors after a trial say to me, ‘Do you have a medical background? You seem like you knew exactly what you were talking about,’” she says.
Nursing and law share some similarities, Dellacona notes. In plaintiff’s work, she says, “You have to educate that client and the family on what you’re doing: the law, their involvement, how things work as far as a jury, a settlement. Same thing in nursing. You’re having to educate the patient and the patient’s family about their condition, lifestyle changes, medications, treatments, therapies. … You’re trying to help somebody deal with something significant in their lives.”
In Dellacona’s conference room hangs a plaque with a quote from the 1993 western Tombstone: “I’m coming, but I’m bringing hell with me.”
“It’s kind of my mantra,” Dellacona says.