In 2018, a patient at Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky, OH Hospital was prescribed several medications that put him at risk of falling. When he eventually fell, he experienced a brain bleed that required surgery.
The fall left him permanently disabled. A jury awarded him $6.19 million in his suit against the hospital.
Experts say cases like this underscore the need for greater patient care and monitoring.
A patient, Michael Johnson, was awarded $6.19 million by a jury after he experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the hospital where he was being treated. TBIs are responsible for nearly 69,000 deaths yearly and are a significant cause of disability.
In March 2018, Johnson was treated at Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky, OH. There, he was given seven medications that increased his risk of falling.
Subsequently, Johnson did fall—experiencing a brain bleed for which he needed surgery. Court documents say that Johnson now has “permanent and substantial disfigurement as a result of brain surgery and a number of resulting health issues requiring nearly around-the-clock care.” A press release from his attorneys, Tittle & Perlmuter, also says Johnson is now confined to a chair at home.
According to the case’s court records, Johnson’s attorneys say, “Firelands had a duty to be reasonably careful when treating Mr. Johnson….Defendant Firelands had a duty to prevent avoidable harm to Mr. Johnson. Defendant Firelands had a duty to obtain informed consent for the treatment and care provided to Mr. Johnson.” The court records cite bodily injury, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and medical expenses—all expected to continue. Johnson’s wife is now his caretaker.
The jury found that Firelands violated the duties mentioned above, finding the hospital negligent in its care and treatment of Johnson. They had failed to ensure proper fall precautions, monitor Johnson, educate Johnson and his wife regarding fall precautions, and administer medications properly, the documents say.
In Judge Roger E. Binette's court, Johnson was awarded $6.19 million in damages. The press release states that this was the largest judgment in that particular court and the second-largest medical malpractice award in Erie County.
“The substantial award sent a clear message to the hospital and other medical facilities in Erie County: Policies matter, patient safety rules matter, and everyone deserves the same standard of medical care,” the press release states.
Maria Zalessky, a lawyer at the Zalessky Law Group, says that seeing a large jury verdict for a medical malpractice case like this one is encouraging for patients who’ve experienced neglect. “Americans in general have a skewed perspective on the frequency of lawsuits and seem to believe lawsuits are bad for society,” she says, saying that the idea that Americans will “sue over everything” can sometimes keep people from fighting for their rights.
“Even medical doctors only have a duty to comply with industry standards, which is why medical malpractice cases like this recent verdict from Ohio are so hard to prove from the plaintiff's side,” she says. “As long as a medical provider was complying with the industry standard of care, a plaintiff cannot prevail no matter how much that industry standard of care hurts them. But in this case, nurses and hospital staff did not follow the standard of care when patient Michael Johnson received medication that made a fall much more likely.”
A call for better educating patients
“The message to MDs, hospitals, and nurses is that they should follow the standard of care because jurors are waking up to a plaintiff-friendly reality,” Zalessky says. “I hope Michael Johnson's case will cause an industry-standard shift in the medical industry. People deserve to feel safe, especially when they're in an already-vulnerable state—such as hospitalized.”
According to Gerda Maissel, MD, BCPA, CPE, a physician and certified patient advocate, MDs must warn patients about any potential side effects associated with the drugs they’ve prescribed. “In my opinion, it goes beyond education,” Dr. Maissel says. “You can tell a patient they are a fall risk, which may or may not change the outcome. [However], ideally, as a doctor, you want to think carefully about all the medications and then discuss with the patient the choices they have for potentially taking less of certain medications vs a high chance of fall.”
But it’s not just the MD who is responsible, she says. It takes a village, and everyone plays a role. “Although a doctor can identify fall risk and order fall precautions without prompting, often fall risk from meds is identified by pharmacists or the electronic medical record, and the specific fall precautions are implemented by nurses.”
Dr. Maissel says it may also be possible that multiple drugs with similar side effects could have played into the adverse effect in Johnson’s case. “Medication side effects profiles are often cumulative,” she says. “Having multiple drugs with a similar side effect profile (such as anticholinergic side effects) is well known to lead to adverse outcomes.” According to Drugs & Aging: several kinds of drugs can increase the risk of falls, including digoxin, which is a type 1a anti-arrhythmics and diuretic, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, antiepileptics, antipsychotics, antiparkinsonian drugs, opioids, and urological spasmolytics.
Furthermore, certain other drugs, including anticoagulants, can increase the risk of a brain bleed after a TBI.