A $38.6 million award to the mother of a young man who died after receiving a heart transplant at an Emory facility is reported to be the largest ever against the health system.
Record-breaking verdicts have been stacking up around the nation in recent years, a a trend experts predict will continue.
On November 9, 2023, a Dekalb County, GA, jury awarded $38.6 million in the case of Trévon Falson, who died following heart procedures at Emory St. Joseph Hospital and Emory University Hospital in 2017. In January 2024, Emory Healthcare and Falson’s mother settled for an undisclosed amount out of court. The jury’s initial award was not only reported to be the largest medical malpractice verdict ever against Emory.
Trévon Falson was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2016 when he was 19. He received a mechanical heart pump while awaiting a heart transplant. Falson had the pump for 13 months before a donor heart became available. In November 2017, he underwent heart transplant surgery at Emory University Hospital. Upon operating on Falson, it was discovered that the pump had moved and that the outflow graft had adhered to the back of his chest. Surgeons unknowingly cut through part of the graft, leading to major blood loss. It took a reported 40 minutes for the surgical team to control bleeding, and Falson lost about two-thirds of his total blood volume.
As a result, Falson’s new heart failed, and he quickly went into kidney and liver failure. Records show that he left the operating room in critical condition. Falson did not recover; he spent the next eight weeks in the ICU and passed away on December 25, 2017, at the age of 20.
Falson’s mother, Barbara Brown, filed a complaint against Emory in 2018. The lawsuit alleged that Emory’s physicians failed to take a CT scan prior to Falson’s transplant, which would have shown that Falson’s pump had moved and could have prevented the error that resulted in his death. Records show that no CT scans were ordered during the 13 months that Falson had his heart pump.
Emory Healthcare refuted these allegations for nearly five years. The healthcare system countered that performing a CT scan prior to a heart transplant is not standard procedure. Additionally, Emory Healthcare stated that Falson’s death is not attributable to the adhered graft and a large amount of blood loss when it was cut but is instead a case of primary graft failure. During the 2023 jury trial, lawyers for Emory argued that both Falson and the donor heart had multiple risk factors for primary graft failure that could not have been avoided.
The malpractice suit named Emory Healthcare and Falson’s transplant surgeon, Duc Q. Nguyen, MD. After a week of trial in November 2023, a jury ruled that Dr. Nguyen was not liable for Falson’s death but that Emory Healthcare was. The final verdict included over $2.6 million for medical expenses, $6 million for pain and suffering, and $30 million for the wrongful death of Falson.
The post-trial settlement ends the case. Brown voluntarily dismissed her case on December 14, 2023. No details of the final settlement amount have been made public.
While Emory Healthcare declined to comment on the details of the case or settlement, Emory Healthcare did release the following statement:
"We will continue our mission of providing high-quality, compassionate care to all patients who come to our facilities. We appreciate the dedication and commitment of our many care teams across our health system."
Rising jury verdicts
The $38.6 million verdict is reported to be the highest dollar award ever against Emory Healthcare, one of Georgia’s largest healthcare systems. The award is also one of Georgia’s overall highest dollar settlements, joining a string of record-breaking jury awards in the past few years. In 2022, a $77 million award against a metro Atlanta addiction treatment center became the highest malpractice award in Georgia’s history.
2023 also saw a handful of massive malpractice awards. Arizona's verdict of over $31.5 million against Banner Health became the state’s largest medical malpractice award. In Pennsylvania, a C-section led to brain damage and a record-breaking $183 million award. In another obstetrics-related case, a Maryland jury awarded nearly $34 million to the family of a child who developed brain damage during delivery.
Experts and industry analysts from The Doctors Company, the nation’s largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer, expect this trend of high-dollar verdicts to continue. They cite several factors, including general economic conditions and social inflation. According to experts, the consolidation of many smaller hospitals and healthcare providers into large healthcare systems and networks, combined with the rise of social media, can result in unintended effects on malpractice juries and verdicts.
“People are, understandably, sympathetic to injured patients,” says Robert E. White, Jr., President of The Doctors Company. “Jurors can also form emotional bonds with credible, empathetic medical professionals, but it’s harder to be sympathetic to a hospital. If jurors perceive a healthcare organization as a faceless but deep-pocketed entity, then an enormous award may be easier for the plaintiff’s attorney to inspire.”