Final Verdict: Surgical Error Led To Death
Surgical errors are often the most egregious and visible forms of medical malpractice. Everyone, it seems, has heard a story about someone who had an artery or nerve severed during an operation, or about a surgeon who left a sponge or tool inside a patient. Worst of all are the cases in which a doctor accidentally performs a procedure on the wrong side of the body.
Hearing about a medical mistake often leads people to assume that the victim automatically has a case for medical malpractice, but that isn’t necessarily true. In some cases, even seemingly egregious medical errors end up causing little or no harm. Even when a medical provider is seriously negligent, the plaintiff must still show real, related damages in order for it to be a medical malpractice case.
In late January fo 2013, 65-year-old William Lovell went into surgery at the Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia for gallbladder removal, or cholecystectomy. He remained in the hospital for two days before being discharged. Three days after his discharge, he checked himself in at the Wythe County Hospital complaining of bladder problems. The following day, severe abdominal pain resulted in the ordering of a CT scan, which revealed perforation of the intestines. The Wythe County emergency room sent him immediately to the Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital for surgery.
At the Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, physicians performed an exploratory laparotomy and discovered that the small intestine had in fact been perforated. The surgeon attempted to clean and repair the area, but within three days, William’s condition worsened. Sepsis set in, and subsequent diagnosis revealed that the bile duct had been completely severed and was leaking into the body cavity. William passed away within a matter of days.
The Salem VA Hospital is a facility run by the United States, and accordingly, William’s longtime companion sued the United States government on behalf of William’s estate. The lawsuit, which was supported by attorneys Devon Munro, Charles Cranwell, Thomas Jackson III, and Thomas Jackson Jr., alleged surgical error, negligent treatment, medical malpractice, and wrongful death. Because the case involved the government, there was no jury and the trial was held before a judge.
Experts brought by attorneys for William’s estate argued that during the initial procedure to remove William’s gallbladder, the VA surgeons had caused both the injury to the bile duct and to the small intestine. He stated that both had together contributed to William’s rapid decline and death, but that the bile duct injury was the primary cause of sepsis. The estate’s attorneys stated that the surgeons had improperly switched between laparoscopic surgery and open surgery during the procedure.
The defense attorneys admitted that the VA surgeons may have caused the injuries, they were not negligent and did not depart from the ordinary and accepted standard of care. They also disputed whether the damages claimed by the plaintiffs were fair and compensatory. At the bench trial, the judge found that the surgeons were negligent and awarded a total of $793,424 to the plaintiffs. Cohen & Cohen