Posted by Bill Sandweg on 06 February 2023.
Large awards for medical malpractice are not nearly as common as the medical profession and its insurers would have you believe. Juries are reluctant to hold doctors responsible for injuring patients. They don’t want to believe that doctors make mistakes that kill and injure people. When there is a large award, a review of the facts almost always shows that it was justified. Today, I will discuss the facts that led a federal judge to award $14.2 M to an 8 year-old child and his parents in their claim against the federal government for medical malpractice.
During his first year of life, the child developed asthma. He had frequent ear infections, upper respiratory infections and was frequently hospitalized for these and his sickle-cell disease. His pediatrician referred him to specialists at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for evaluation. The pediatrician thought he might be a candidate for ear tubes to reduce the likelihood of ear infections and for a procedure to remove his adenoids, to address snoring complaints and reports of mouth breathing.
At Walter Reed, the child was evaluated by an Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, who concluded he was a candidate for the two procedures. After consulting with the surgeon, the parents agreed to the surgery.
The day before the surgery, the anesthesiologist, who would be delivering anesthesia care during the surgery, reviewed the child’s records and concluded that he was a high risk patient because of his asthma and sickle cell disease. She believed he was at risk of brain injury and death. She recommended he be admitted before the surgery to receive IV hydration to reduce the surgical risks. No one listened and the child was not admitted or infused with fluids. On the morning of the surgery, she repeated her concerns to the surgeon who disagreed and said the surgery had to go forward. The parents were never informed of the anesthesiologists concerns or of the risks she thought were present.
During the surgery, the child began to experience low oxygen levels. His heart rate went high and then began to decline precipitously. His blood pressures dropped and his heart stopped. After ten minutes of CPR, the doctors were able to restore a heart beat but by that time the child had suffered a permanent brain injury due to lack of oxygen.
The child is now confined to a wheelchair or to bed, must have 24 hour nursing care and is ventilator dependent. He takes 32 different medications and has a feeding pump. He has multiple seizures on a daily basis and his life expectancy has been reduced to only 21 years of age. He will never live independently or be gainfully employed.
The parents brought suit for medical malpractice and a failure to advise them of the risks the surgery presented to their child. Because the suit was one against the federal government, it was governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act, which mandates these cases be tried to the court and not to a jury.
The federal district court judge who heard the evidence found that the surgeon and the anesthesiologist were both guilty of malpractice in the manner in which the surgery was performed. He awarded the child and the parents just over $14 million dollars for past and future medical expenses, for loss of earning capacity, and some money for non-economic damages. The vast majority of the award, $11,000,000, was for future medical expenses.
What should have been a short and routine operation spiraled out of control because the doctors involved did not properly evaluate the risks of the surgery and did not stop the surgery when things began to go wrong. A young life was ruined and the parents were devastated by the injury to their child. Were there not a cap on non-economic damages, the award would likely have been much larger. Think about these facts next time you hear someone complaining about large awards in malpractice cases.