Alabama Jury Awards $15M in Propofol Overdose Death Suit

On June 25, 2012   a state court jury in Mobile, Alabama returned a $15 million verdict against Springhill Memorial Hospital for the wrongful death of a 45-year-old wife and mother of three children who walked into the hospital on November 7, 2008 to undergo diagnostic testing. After the results of the tests revealed the need for surgery, she returned to the hospital later that morning and successfully underwent cardiac by-pass surgery. She was recovering when a nurse’s medication error caused her to go into cardiac arrest and die.

After a two-week trial, a jury of twelve unanimously determined that the hospital was liable for placing the patient’s care in the hands of an unqualified, inappropriately trained nurse. The nurse had come on duty to relieve the primary post-op care team only 25 minutes prior to administering the drug, and made numerous medical errors while administering Propofol (diprivan), the same drug that allegedly killed Michael Jackson.

The trial evidence established that the patient was an “ideal, low-risk” candidate who underwent triple by-pass surgery without any problems. That afternoon, her recovery at Springhill’s Cardiac Recovery Unit (CRU) proceeded for more than six hours without complications, just as hoped for, until the newcomer nurse to CRU’s staff administered the overdose of Propofol, causing the patient’s blood pressure to drop and the patient to fall into a coma. The heart surgeon was pleased with the outcome of the three-vessel bypass surgery, and confirmed the success with a post-surgery Doppler flow (ultrasound) study.  Following her death, an autopsy confirmed the surgery’s success and believed that the cardiac surgical team was satisfied they did everything to give the patient a new lease on life. The surgeon testified that he was “devastated” to learn the morning following surgery that his patient had died following the surgery.

With the help of Mobile County’s Chief Medical Examiner, who served as one of the expert witnesses, the jury determined that the patient was given an anesthetic dose of Propofol, rather than the “light sedation” ordered by her physician, while being left without the protection of a ventilator. It is said that as a consequence of this, the patient lapsed into a deep coma from which she never recovered. The medical examiner explained that the incorrect administration of Propofol was “the only plausible explanation” for her untimely and unnecessary death.

Testimony from another of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses, an internationally renowned anesthesiologist and critical care specialist in Florida, also pinpointed the nurse’s improper administration of Propofol was not providing mechanical ventilation for a patient being treated with the powerful drug. He explained that there was a direct causal relationship between the improper administration of the Propofol and the patient’s demise. He, too, described how she lapsed immediately into a coma, accompanied by respiratory depression and plummeting blood pressures, while the nurse failed for twenty-five minutes to call a physician or anyone else for help.

The family’s nursing expert witness from Arizona, described numerous breaches of the standard of care, stating that the nurse repeatedly failed to follow physicians’ orders; Springhill’s employment of a nurse in its CRU who had none of the required paperwork establishing that she had been appropriately trained in caring for recovering cardiac bypass patients; that she had virtually no experience in providing care to post-cardiac bypass surgery patients in administration of the dangerous anesthetic Propofol; the nurse’s admission that she observed serious neurological and blood pressure changes in her patient, which she recognized were directly related to the Propofol administration, but never called for help from any physician or from her own hospital’s Rapid Response Team, as required; the nurse’s administration of Propofol without first ensuring that the patient was protected by a mechanical ventilator, and then failing to respond correctly and immediately once she realized her mistake; the hospital’s loss, destruction, and deletion of critical medical records. “Failing to keep timely and accurate patient records is a clear violation of Alabama law, stated hospital policy, and the requirements for continuing certification as a licensed hospital,” she said.

Not only is this a case about a tragic wrongful death, it is about the rights of patients at hospitals, to be cared for by well-trained, competent nurses. It is also about the rights of physicians and surgeons to have the confidence and peace of mind that their patients will be cared for by qualified nurses. It is also about putting an end to the destruction and withholding of evidence when medical errors occur. It is obvious that the jury felt that these practices were unacceptable, as well.

Patients choose their doctors but they also choose their hospitals based on trust. They trust that the hospitals will provide them with trained, competent nurses and that if something goes wrong, the hospital will be honest with them. Clearly, this plaintiff’s health care provider violated their trust.

Feel free to contact one of our Gacovino Lake & Associates attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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