When we think of medical malpractice, we often think of a doctor that performed the wrong surgical procedure, amputated the wrong limb, or maybe left a medical sponge in a patient’s body. However, there are many more subtle cases of negligence by doctors and nurses; one of the most common is medication and prescription mistakes.
A man suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was admitted to the hospital for observation. His hospital roommate was battling cancer and was receiving the powerful painkiller, OxyContin. A nurse inadvertently gave the painkiller to the COPD patient, instead of the Cancer patient and, within 12 hours, he was dead. The hospital admitted liability, but the two parties could not agree on a settlement amount for the victim’s family. They did however agree to a range ($100,000 – $325,000) for damages and if they verdict fell in that range, neither party would appeal. Five years later, a jury has ordered the hospital to pay the plaintiffs family $154,000.
At first glance, how does this resolution strike you? Its low, right? Where’s this "jackpot justice" you’ve been reading about? This victim was suffering from an advanced stage of COPD; he had a life expectancy of a year. He was, most likely, not experiencing much pain when he died. Had hospital staff discovered the medication error, quickly, intubation would have helped him breath, allowing the painkiller to work its way through his system. But, there was an order that he did not want to be intubated for breathing. The civil justice system is one of fair compensation; it accounts for and corrects for the particular situation that confronts it.
Now, consider a 28-year-old man who was admitted to the hospital with a broken arm following an automobile accident. When his mother arrived at the hospital, she saw a breathing tube in his nose and a surgical trauma team ready to repair a fracture. The mother was assured her son’s injuries were not life-threatening. Later that day, she was told he slipped into a coma. He died three weeks later – from a broken arm?
It was later determined that the he died from an overdose of Fentanyl, a painkiller usually given to critically ill patients. This medical mistake stripped a five-year-old little girl of her father and a mother of her 28-year-old son. The hospital offered to help pay for his funeral expenses. This man was not terminally ill; he was a healthy, young father working to support his family. What is the value of his life to his family? The jury awarded $3.2 Million. I know what some of you are thinking: This is also too low. $3.2 Million for the life of a 28-year-old father of a five-year-old?
In these two cases, reasonable juries made reasonable decisions. Although both families would prefer to have their loved ones with them today, these settlements were, at least, ‘reasonable’. These cases are perfect examples that there is no “jackpot justice.” The jury in both cases did not dole out millions of dollars for "frivolous lawsuits". Serious mistakes were made; people died, and reasonable amounts were paid. The more important question is: Did these hospitals learn their lessons? Did they change medication dispensing protocol? How many lawsuits and how many verdicts will it take for them to adopt safer measures? How will these hospitals treat you and your loved ones? What would be reasonable compensation if these victims were your loved ones?
There are technological improvements being instituted to improve medication safety, most hospitals do not permit doctors to hand write scripts; they must, instead, input a patient’s prescription into a computer. Is this enough? Of course not; but, it will cut down errors. Patients and their loved ones should always ask questions and gain confidence in the care being rendered. Double check and be diligent. Safety begins with your doctor; but a hospital should also require that three pairs of eyes – the doctor’s, a nurse’s, and a pharmacist’s – verify that the correct medication is being administered in the correct dosages to the correct patients. Patients and hospitals should never assume that nothing could go wrong.
So, what do you think? Were these appropriate verdicts for the negligent actions of the health care professionals responsible for the deaths of these patients? Medical malpractice tort reform substantially reduces fair settlements; it prevents you and your loved ones from holding those responsible for serious injury and death, accountable for their actions. Reducing the penalty for errors makes all of us less safe. Is that what you want for you and your family? Isn’t it time we put safety first regardless of institutional cost? Isn’t it time to stop blaming the victims?
Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.