The biggest medical malpractice cases in the past year

By John Murphy
Published July 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

Medical malpractice lawsuits are all too familiar to physicians. Nearly half of family physicians (49%) say they’ve been named in a malpractice suit, according to Medscape’s latest Family Physician Malpractice Report. But fortunately, many cases never go to trial, and only a fraction of those end up with a win for the plaintiff.

But then again, some malpractice cases make headlines because of the hefty amount of the award or the stunning facts of the case (or both). Here are a few of those astonishing cases that have occurred in the past year.

Small mass leads to large payout

A California jury recently awarded $22,246 in economic damages and $9.25 million in non-economic damages to a plaintiff who got more than he bargained for when he went in for surgery to remove a mass in his scrotum.

According to the lawsuit, the patient had consented to “local excision of scrotal mass, possible cystoscopy.” But when the patient went under the knife in 2014, the surgeon found that the mass was much larger than anticipated, extending into the penis. The surgeon, taking matters into his own hands, not only removed the scrotal mass, but also a significant portion of the patient’s penis.

As a result, the patient was left with a disfigured and dysfunctional penis. He sued the surgeon for medical negligence, claiming that he neither knew nor consented to the removal of additional tissue.

But California has a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. So, how did the jury award such a large amount?

In addition to medical negligence, the patient’s claim also cited “medical battery” for undergoing a very different procedure than he had agreed to. Doing so allowed the jury to skirt the $250,000 cap on non-economic damages for professional negligence. The patient’s lawyer argued that the jury should “send a message.” The jury listened, and awarded the plaintiff more than $9 million in non-economic damages.

Deadly infection in the NICU

Between July and September 2019, three premature infants died after an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA. Five more infants were also infected but survived, although one sustained a permanent brain injury.

“That type of injury will require intensive medical care for the rest of that child’s life,” said attorney Matt Casey, who represented the family of the infant with the brain injury. The family had twins in the NICU—one with the brain injury and another who died. “While they are certainly heartbroken over the death of one of their children, they have a really long road ahead of them for the care of their child who survived,” Casey said. 

The infection was traced to inadequately sanitized equipment used to prepare breast milk, which led to the contamination.

Geisinger recently reached a settlement with the families, the terms of which were not disclosed. As a condition of the settlement, Geisinger admitted fault—an action The New York Times characterized as “extraordinary.”

“Geisinger has taken this extremely seriously in their dealings with me on behalf of my clients,” Casey said. “They’ve taken unprecedented steps as a consequence of litigation to accept responsibility, not for simply the infections occurring, but for them being the legal cause of these [deaths and injuries].”

Geisinger president and CEO Jaewon Ryu, MD, JD, said in a statement: “The loss of a child is tragic, and this settlement can never replace these young children, however we believe we have taken the steps necessary to prevent future infections and spare other families from this loss.”

Record award for brain-damaged baby

In November 2019, a jury in Chicago, IL, awarded a record $101 million on behalf of a 5-year-old boy who suffered severe brain damage at birth. The boy’s mother, who brought the lawsuit, and the hospital that was sued agreed to reduce the award to $50 million on the condition that the hospital would not appeal.

In August 2014, the mother went to West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, IL, to give birth. According to the lawsuit, the mother reported decreased fetal movement shortly after she was admitted, but 5 hours went by before nurses and medical staff realized this was an emergency. The hospital’s staff also ignored external fetal heart monitoring reports that showed the baby was at risk, according to the claim. A medical expert brought by the plaintiff testified that the infant would not have suffered brain injury if hospital nurses and medical staff had promptly alerted doctors, who could have delivered the baby by emergency C-section.

“There was a complete lack of communication and proper care for this new mother and her newborn,” the mother’s lawyer said after the verdict. “All of the signs were present that this baby needed help and no one cared.”

The mother said she has had to stay at home to provide round-the-clock care for the boy. The 5-year-old is not able to speak, walk, or sit up on his own. The jury award will provide full-time care for the boy for the rest of his life, his mother’s lawyer said.

“I want to thank the jury for listening to what really happened,” the boy’s mother said after the verdict. “Somehow I think that deep down inside—when [my son] is a little older—he will know that there were many people who loved him and wanted him to have the best care possible because he did nothing wrong.”

He didn’t start the fire?

A lawsuit filed in January 2020 claimed that a pediatric dentist in Las Vegas, NV, breached the standard of care by starting a fire in a 5-year-old girl’s mouth during a routine dental procedure.

According to the lawsuit, the dentist was using a diamond bur on the girl’s teeth which produced a spark that “caused the throat pack in [the girl’s] mouth to ignite and produce a fire” lasting one or two seconds.

The girl was taken immediately to University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. She was hospitalized for several days and treated for burns to her lips, mouth, tongue, epiglottis, throat, “and other surrounding areas,” according to the complaint. She also suffered hearing problems and had to be hospitalized a second time for further treatment.

The suit stated that the dentist “fell below the minimally acceptable standard of dental care,” which led to “disabilities, disfigurement, pain and suffering, future surgical procedures, and loss of enjoyment of life.” The claim asked for more than $15,000 in damages.

In an affidavit filed along with the suit, an expert witness in oral and maxillofacial surgery wrote: “It is my opinion that [the dentist’s office] breached the standard of care by failing to adequately protect the airway, and committing a series of acts which set up a truly ‘incendiary’ situation.”

A court date for a jury trial has been scheduled for October 2021.

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