PHOENIX, ARIZONA – Shawn Cunningham, Joseph D’Aguanno, and their hard-working team at Harris, Powers & Cunningham obtained a $5.875 million verdict in a medical malpractice wrongful death case. The Maricopa County jury determined that the untimely passing of a 32-year-old wife and stay-at-home mother of two young children would not have happened but for a series of serious omissions on the part of her health care providers. The jury deliberated for six hours following a two-and-a half week trial.
The general facts are:
On the morning of March 17, 2008, the patient was rushed by ambulance to a local Emergency Department (ED) with severe abdominal pain, bloody stool, and a history of Crohn’s disease. The ED physician evaluated her and ordered a stat CT scan around 8:50 a.m. Around 11:30 a.m., the ED physician learned that the only CT tech on shift fell ill and the stat CT could not be done until the next shift, scheduled for 5 p.m. The patient’s condition continued to worsen and, around 1 p.m., the ED physician decided to have a hospitalist admit the patient to the hospital. Life-threatening surgical issues should have been high on the differential, but neither the ED physician nor the hospitalist called the on call surgeon because they believed he would not see the patient without a CT scan.
Despite receiving pain medication, the patient was in agony. Her condition continued to decline. The CT was not completed until 6:25 p.m. and the results were not communicated to the hospitalist until 7:15 p.m. With the results in hand, the hospitalist contacted the on call surgeon for an urgent, stat, surgical consult. The surgeon ordered conservative therapy and advised he would see the patient in the morning. In response, because of the grave nature of the patient’s condition, the hospitalist pleaded with the surgeon to come in. The surgeon abruptly hung up. Even a call from the hospital’s CEO failed to get the surgeon in that night. The surgeon did not come in and perform surgery until the following morning, but it was too late. The patient was in septic shock and the beginning stages of multi-organ failure. She died on March 19, 2008.
The near unanimous jury verdict made it clear that the health care providers needlessly endangered their patient by failing to comply with simple safety principles — one of which requires physicians to timely diagnose and treat a potentially life-threatening surgical condition. The inability to perform a stat CT scan did not relieve the health care providers of their obligation to protect their patient. The untimely death of this woman — who was a wife, mother, and child — could have been avoided with a simple phone call to the surgeon when the stat CT scan became unavailable or by obtaining an alternative imaging study. The culture at this hospital prevented the health care providers from considering these simple, potentially life-saving alternatives. The omissions of the health care providers put all patients at risk and the jury’s verdict made it clear that such omissions are not acceptable.
The health care providers committed medical malpractice and the jury apportioned 40% of the fault to the on call surgeon, 30% to the hospital, 25% to the hospitalist, and 5% to the ED physician.
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