A Pennsylvania family has been awarded $5 million in damages to compensate for the death of their loved one, a 49-year-old and mother of three, who was prematurely discharged from the Albert Einstein Medical Center after a gallbladder removal procedure. The trial, held in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, lasted five days, according to the Legal Intelligencer.
Albert Einstein Medical Center Held Liable For Woman’s Death
In a decision rendered on July 21, 2017, the Philadelphia jury attributed 90% of the legal responsibility to the Albert Einstein Medical Center and 10% of liability to a treating physician at the prestigious training hospital. The total award includes $4.6 million for wrongful death and $400,000 granted through Pennsylvania’s survival statute, which holds that certain legal claims applicable prior to a person’s death are transferred to their estate after death.
The real problem, the jury found, lay in a communication breakdown between the patient’s attending physician, Dr. Mark J. Kaplan, and his residents. Dr. Kaplan performed a gallbladder removal on the woman, who also had sickle cell anemia, in 2014. Following the procedure, the patient reported experiencing severe pain. Her physical therapist, after examining her the same day, recommended that she stay at the hospital overnight for observation.
This advice didn’t make it much further. The woman was discharged the same day, despite her physical therapist’s guidance. In a pre-trial memo, the woman’s daughter described the medical center’s alleged negligence in stark terms, “either the [Albert Einstein Medical Center] staff were unaware of [the patient’s] alarming condition revealed during physical therapy or, alternatively, the […] staff just disregarded it altogether.”
Bile Duct Injury Led To Patient’s Death, Jury Hears
At home, the patient’s condition only worsened. Her pain grew, forcing her back to the hospital two days later. There, she was diagnosed with a bile leak, according to court documents. Bile duct injuries are not uncommon during gall bladder removals. While estimates vary, the experts at the Cleveland Clinic suggest that around 1 in 1,000 patients who undergo a gall bladder procedure will suffer a bile duct injury. To correct the problem, and restore proper bile flow, doctors usually reconstruct the duct itself, often using other portions of the intestine.
In the present case, physicians at the Albert Einstein Medical Center implanted a drain in the woman’s bile duct, but their efforts were unable to stop her severe pain. As her family’s subsequent malpractice lawsuit alleged, perhaps most crucial was the medical team’s failure to perform a hematology consult, which could have assessed the effect that a pre-existing condition, sickle cell anemia, would have on her chances at recovery.
Two days after the drain was placed, the woman went into cardiopulmonary arrest. She was resuscitated and transferred to an intensive care unit, but died the following day.
Pre-Existing Condition Went Unevaluated
In a medical malpractice lawsuit filed after her death, the woman’s daughter, who also serves as the administrator for her estate, relies on the testimony of an independent medical expert to explain her mother’s tragic death.
As the daughter writes, her mother suffered a sickle cell crisis soon after being discharged from the hospital. In combination with her bile duct injury, which had caused extreme inflammation, the sickle cell crisis led to multiple organ failure and ultimately death.
A heritable blood disorder that disproportionately affects African-Americans, sickle cell anemia involves a genetic mutation that causes red blood cells to become misshapen. In one of the disorder’s most serious complications, a sickle cell crisis, these malformed blood cells come to block a blood vessel, preventing oxygen and nutrients from reaching vital organs.
Residents In Training Hospitals Held To High Medical Standard
Crucial to the jury’s decision was the plaintiff’s argument that residents at the Albert Einstein Medical Center lacked a formal understanding of when to discharge patients and when to keep them in the hospital for observation. In his own testimony, Dr. Kaplan said that he had discharged the woman based on misstatements he was given by his residents.
All doctors trained in the United States must go through residency, a period of hands-on medical practice under the supervision of an attending physician. After completing four years of academic education, medical students receive their degrees and become licensed to practice. Residency comes next, a strenuous period of clinical practice that often leads to specialization in a particular field of medicine. Most residency programs last at least three years.
While residents are still training, they are ruled by the same legal standards that bind the decisions and techniques of every doctor. As one plaintiffs’ attorney said of the recent $5 million verdict, “it’s a good reminder that, when you’re in a teaching facility, residents are going to be held to the same standard as the attending physician.”