More than $20.6 million in damages have been awarded to the family of a Minneapolis woman who died only days after delivering her child in 2013. Legal observers are calling it the largest verdict in a wrongful death malpractice lawsuit ever rendered in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.
Husband, Son Win $20.6M After Tragic Death Of Mother
The 30 year-old-woman, who gave birth after 20 hours of labor in August of 2013, almost immediately developed sepsis, a systemic inflammatory response that proved fatal.
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A six-member jury in Minnesota’s Hennepin County District Court heard from attorneys that an emergency room nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital ignored troubling lab tests showing that the new mother had developed a life-threatening infection.
She had presented to the ER soon after giving birth, showing signs of infection, including fever, chills, nausea and pain. Lab tests, according to her family’s lawsuit, displayed “classic signs of sepsis”:
- fever above 101ºF
- elevated heart rate
- elevated breathing rate
- low platelet count
- high white blood cell count
The woman’s platelet count, a measure of blood clotting factors, was described as “alarmingly low” at trial. But Patricia Eid, a 69-year-old nurse practitioner, “chose” not to diagnose the condition, the lawsuit claimed. In a tragic twist of irony, the woman had, before her death, been working as a physicians assistant at Twin City Orthopedic. She earned her Master’s Degree from Chicago’s Midwestern University in 2007.
Nurse Practitioner Misdiagnosed Post-Delivery Sepsis
Instead of diagnosing sepsis properly, Eid diagnosed the woman with a urinary tract infection. The nurse practitioner’s diagnosis was strange, court records continue, since lab results displayed no bacteria in her urine. Despite her condition, Eid sent the patient home, failing to notify the obstetrician on-call of the patient’s troubling platelet results. The woman returned to her house with prescriptions for antibiotics and Tylenol.
Meanwhile, the woman’s condition only continued to decline over the afternoon, until she lost consciousness and fell to the ground. Back at the emergency room, physicians immediately diagnosed with a severe case of sepsis. Medical records show that doctors considered her “critically ill” at the time.
The mother’s medical team quickly administered antibiotics and performed a full hysterectomy, a rare but potentially life-saving measure attempted when severe infections develop in the uterus. The woman died two days later. Her child was six days old.
What Is Severe Sepsis?
Sepsis, as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an extreme response of the immune system to infection.
A pre-existing infection, which can begin anywhere in the body, triggers a chain reaction until immune cells are released into the blood. Once these cells enter the blood, inflammation spreads throughout the body.
This inflammation, in turn, can lead to blood clots or burst blood vessels, decreasing the amount of blood able to reach vital organs. Thus, untreated sepsis leads to organ failure, in which one or more organs begin to work improperly, ultimately leading to death. The chain reaction can occur at stunning speed, which makes sepsis a true emergency situation.
Symptoms Of Sepsis
The diagnosis of “severe sepsis” represents a specific phase of the chain reaction, characterized by the failure of at least one organ system. According to Healthline, doctors diagnose the condition based on the following symptoms:
- patchy skin discoloration
- inadequate urination
- low platelet count
- changes in cognition
- loss of consciousness
- breathing difficulties
- low body temperature (often accompanied by chills)
- extreme fatigue and / or weakness
In the United Kingdom, sepsis is the leading cause of maternal death, according to researchers at the United Kingdom Obstetric Surveillance System. Meanwhile, public health experts in the United States have also expressed fears that maternal deaths from sepsis are on the rise, according to a 2012 MedPage Today report.
Unanimous Jury Says Negligence Caused Death
The state court jury ruled unanimously that Patricia Eid and Emergency Care Consultants had provided negligent medical care that led to the woman’s tragic death, according to US News & World Report. Emergency Care Consultants is a company in Minneapolis that contracts with local hospitals, including Abbott Northwestern, to deliver emergency care services. The hospital itself was not named as a defendant.
Defendant Nurse “Shifted Blame” To Doctors
Speaking after the verdict, a plaintiff’s attorney told reporters that, at trial, the defendants had actually admitted to providing negligent care, but attempted to shift the responsibility for their patient’s death onto attending physicians.
The woman had died from necrotizing fasciitis, defense attorneys argued, not the misdiagnosed case of sepsis.
But the patient’s treating surgeon denied the defense’s account, testifying in no uncertain terms that sepsis had been the cause of her death. The defense’s strategy, as the jury’s ultimate decision makes clear, wasn’t particularly convincing.
In a verdict rendered on the afternoon of Monday, August 28, 2017, the six members of the jury sided with the family’s attorneys. The plaintiff’s lawyers had argued that the woman’s infection began as endometriosis, a condition common after vaginal birth, in which uterine lining begins to grow outside the uterus.
Expert: “Proper Diagnosis” Could Have Saved Life
An expert witness for the family, Dr. Harold Wiesenfeld, an associate professor of obstetrics at the University of Pittsburgh, testified that a correct diagnosis would have saved the woman’s life. She is survived by her husband and son, now four years old, who live in Arizona. The family, through their attorney, said they were “grateful that they have justice for the loss of” their loved one.
The jury has awarded the father and his son over $20.6 million in damages, including $4 million to compensate for wages the decedent could have earned in the future, $400,000 for the loss of household services in the future and $14.446 million for loss of companionship, guidance and comfort in the future.
Emergency Care Consultants, which lists its mailing address online as Abbott Northwestern Hospital, is considering an appeal of the judgment, but has not yet made a decision. The company manages six emergency departments in Minnesota.