8 outrageous malpractice cases—and what physicians can learn from them

By Linda Childers | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published January 3, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The majority of medical malpractice suits are filed because of a misdiagnosis or a delayed diagnosis, childbirth, anesthesia, informed consent, infection, medication errors, and surgical errors.

  • Certain specialties are often seen as classically high-risk for malpractice claims, including OB/GYN, surgical specialties, and emergency medicine.

  • Many hospitals have started to implement communication and resolution programs (CRPs) that work with doctors and healthcare organizations to mitigate malpractice suits.

Malpractice cases can provide valuable insight on how to avoid surgical and medication errors and improve overall patient care, and learning from malpractice cases can ensure medical mistakes aren’t repeated. 

Here are eight of the most outrageous medical malpractice cases from the past few years.

Medication errors and medical negligence

Medical and medication errors, along with medical negligence, are among the most common reasons patients file medical malpractice suits. Below are some disturbing cases that have been settled recently.

  • A patient was being treated for pancreatitis in 2020 at Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Florida when his doctor ordered increasing doses of hydromorphone (Dilaudid) to help manage his pain.

Before prescribing the medication, his doctor didn’t inquire as to whether the patient had sleep apnea, nor did he monitor his vital signs on a pulse oximeter or telemetry monitor. As a result of the medication, the patient died, and his widow won a $20 million malpractice suit in 2023.[]

  • In 2006, a woman in Long Island underwent a double mastectomy after being told she had an invasive form of breast cancer. Following the surgery, the patient learned a lab tech had mislabeled her biopsy results and that she’d never had cancer. She sued for malpractice and received a $2.5 million settlement.[][]

  • The family of a Las Vegas woman who was hospitalized after sustaining a fall sued MountainView Hospital and Mountain’s Edge Hospital in 2019 after doctors raised her sodium levels too quickly.[] She now suffers from a neurological condition called osmotic demyelination syndrome (ODS), also known as “locked-in syndrome,” where her brain is still functioning but she is unable to move, and can only communicate through blinking.

During the trial, medical experts agreed the safest approach to treating low sodium levels is to increase them by four to six points in a 24-hour period. In this case, the patient’s sodium levels were raised by more than 17 points within a 24-hour period. The patient was awarded a $47 million verdict in her malpractice case in February 2023.[]


Many medical malpractice suits are filed as the result of a misdiagnosis. In these cases, a physician’s failure to properly diagnose a patient, or correctly diagnose a health condition, can lead to delayed treatment or failure to treat. 

During a team practice, a 39-year-old high school wrestling coach experienced dizziness, blurred vision, neck pain, and nausea. After visiting a local hospital, he was transferred to Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ, where he was diagnosed with benign positional vertigo.

After being discharged, the patient suffered a stroke that caused severe brain damage, loss of vision, and challenges in speaking and walking. His family filed a malpractice suit, which resulted in a $6.3 million settlement.[] 

Surgical errors

Surgical errors, ranging from operating on the wrong body part, to leaving a sponge or other foreign object in a patient after surgery, often result in malpractice lawsuits. Some of these cases are detailed below.

  • In August, 2023, a jury awarded $13 million to a Washington woman who was left permanently disfigured after surgery for a breast lift, tummy tuck, arm lift, and liposuction. Despite the patient being an uncontrolled diabetic, the cosmetic surgeon never deemed her a poor candidate.

During surgery, the doctor cut off too much skin, resulting in scarring, and failed to address surgical-site infections or use postoperative care treatments.[] 

  • A woman from Kentucky filed a malpractice suit after learning a sponge had been left inside her during bypass surgery in 2011. Four years later, the sponge eroded into her intestine, causing gastrointestinal problems. Although a radiologist saw the sponge on a scan, the patient wasn’t notified, and it remained inside of her for another 20 months. In 2016, a CT scan revealed the sponge. It was subsequently removed through a surgical procedure, but a year later, the patient had complications that led to her leg being amputated. In 2019, a jury awarded the patient $10.5 million.[] 

Specialty cases

Obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, and emergency medicine are all considered high-risk specialties for medical malpractice lawsuits. Consider the following cases.

  • In 2022, a family in Iowa City was awarded $97.4 million in a medical malpractice suit after their baby was born with severe brain damage. The family claimed that their child, born in 2018 at Mercy Hospital, was in fetal distress and required oxygen, yet the physician delivering the baby proceeded with a vaginal birth rather than a cesarean section, which could have kept the baby safe. In addition, the doctor used forceps, fracturing the baby’s skill in the process and causing brain damage. The child was left needing lifelong medical care.[] 

  • A Texas couple was awarded $10.2 million in 2022 in a medical malpractice lawsuit that resulted from emergency room delays in 2019. The female patient was taken to the ER with an epidural hematoma following a pain injection she received at a nearby medical clinic. The woman suffered permanent paralysis after the hospital delayed an MRI scan and emergency surgery.[] 

Avoiding malpractice suits

Although the AMA found that one-third of physicians (31.2%) were sued in 2022 for medical malpractice, lawsuits aren’t inevitable.

Many hospitals have started to implement communication and resolution programs (CRPs), that work with doctors and healthcare organizations to offer the following.

  • Transparency with patients around risks and adverse events.

  • Action plans designed to prevent recurrences of adverse events caused by system failure or human error.

  • Support regarding the emotional needs of the patient, family, and care team.

  • Oversight regarding the disclosure of errors while proactively and promptly offering financial and non-financial resolution to patients for adverse events caused by unreasonable care.

  • Education for patients and/or their families about their right to seek legal representation.[]

What this means for you

The majority of medical malpractice suits are filed because of misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, childbirth, anesthesia, informed consent, infection, or errors related to medication or surgery. By prioritizing patient relationships, maintaining proper documentation, complying with policies and procedures, and working with their hospital’s communication and resolution programs, doctors can minimize their risk of malpractice. 

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