Articles Tagged with wrong patient surgery

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a Policy Statement titled "Guidelines for Expert Testimony in Medical Malpractice Litigation.  

After reviewing the role of the expert witness in medical malpractice litigation, the Guidelines begin the "recommendations" section of the paper with this statement:

The AAP recognizes that physicians have the professional, ethical, and legal duty to testify as called on in a court of law in accordance with their expertise. Physicians serving as expert witnesses have an obligation to present complete and unbiased information with which the trier of fact can ascertain whether the defendant was medically negligent and whether, as a result, the plaintiff suffered compensable

injury and/or damages. At this time, the best strategies for improving the quality of medical expert witness testimony are strengthening the qualifications for serving as a medical expert and providing more specific guidelines for physician conduct throughout the legal process.

The recommendations include the following:
To meet that obligation, physicians agreeing to testify as experts in medical negligence cases should conduct themselves as follows:
1. Regardless of the source of the request for testimony (plaintiff or defendant physician), expert witnesses should lend their knowledge, experience, and best judgment to all relevant facts of the case.
2. Expert witnesses should take necessary steps to  ensure that they have access to all documents used to establish the facts of the case and the circumstances surrounding the occurrence.
3. Relevant information should not be excluded for any reason and certainly not to create a perspective favoring the plaintiff or the defendant.
4. The expert witness’s opinion should be fair and objective. The expert witness should be comfortable with his or her testimony regardless of whether it is to be used by the plaintiff or defendant.


Here is the most up-to-date data on medical malpractice case filings in Tennessee.

Regular readers know that  effective October 1, 2008 the General Assembly imposed significant restrictions on patients who want to file a medical malpractice suits.  The new law, which was modified again effective July 1, 2009, requires pre-suit notice and the filing of a certificate of good faith.

For the 12-month period ending September 30, 2008, 644  medical malpractice lawsuits were filed in Tennessee.   A whooping 140 of those were filed in September 2008 as lawyers filed suits to avoid the burden and risks of filing cases under the new law.  If September 2008 were an average month, one would have expected only 45 cases to have been filed.

For the year ending September 30, 2009,  available data indicates that only 263 medical malpractice lawsuits had been filed.  (Note: several counties have not yet reported data for September 2009.  Final numbers will be available in a couple months.  I would be shocked if the total number of filings for the year ending September 30, 2009 would be more that 280.)

If one assumes that total filings for the year ending September 30, 2009 will be 280, medical malpractice filings are down 65%.

That percentage reduction is not really fair, however, because of the surge of filings in September 2008.  So, let’s play with the numbers a little bit and see what we find.

Assume that all of the cases filed in September 2008 would have been filed even after the new statute came into effect and that, but for the new law, September 2008 filings should be re-adjusted to 45 – the average number of new lawsuits filed in each of the other months in that year.  Under that assumption, the adjusted total medical malpractice filings for the year ending September 30, 2008 were 549.

Next, assume that the other 95 cases filed in September 2008 would have been filed in the ordinary course in October -December 2008 or in early 2009.  Under that assumption, total medical malpractice filings for year ending September 30, 2009 would be 375 (assuming the final figures show total actual filings to be 280 plus the 95 hypothetical filings).  Under all of those assumptions, it would be fair to say that medical malpractice filings are down 32%.

This is a very conservative estimate.  Why?  First, it assumes that all of the cases filed in September 2008 under the old law would have been filed under the new law.   I think that is unlikely.   Second, it assumes that 36 medical malpractice lawsuits were filed in September, 2009, when available data tells us that only 19 were filed. 

It will take a couple years to get a completely accurate feel of how the new law has impacted medical malpractice case filings.  However,  at this time it is reasonable to say the new law has had a significant impact on case filings.  A reduction in the number of lawsuits is great for medical malpractice insurance companies and bad for insurance defense lawyers who defend malpractice cases.   In the short-run, a reduced number of filings is good for heath care providers. 

The impact on plaintiff’s lawyers is that fewer lawyers will be handling these cases because the new law makes handling the cases more time-consuming, expensive and difficult.  In addition, anecdotal evidence tells us that, in an effort to reduce the loss of income from defending cases that are no longer being filed, defense lawyers will be working cases even harder, thus increasing the work on the lawyers for patients and decreasing the profitability of those cases.  As profitability decreases, only cases that have  substantial value will be filed, thus further impacting the ability of patients to seek legal redress for their injuries.

HeathGrades studies Medicare patient care in our nation’s hospitals based on 15 indicators of patient safety.   

Here are some highlights from the 2009 report representing data from 2005 -2007:

· There were 913,215 total patient safety events among 864,765 Medicare beneficiarieswhich represents 2.3 percent of the nearly 38 million Medicare hospitalizations.

· These patient safety events were associated with over $6.9 billion of excess cost.

· The overall incidence rate remained virtually unchanged compared to last year’s study(except the failure to rescue indicator for which there were major methodological changes).

· Eight indicators showed improvement over the course of the study.  Complications of anesthesia, death in low mortality DRGs, failure to rescue, iatrogenic pneumothorax, selected infections due to medical care, post-operative hip fracture, postoperativehemorrhage or hematoma, and transfusion reaction showed improvementranging from 2.3 percent to 52.0 percent.These eight indicators accounted for 14.5 percent of the total patient safety eventsduring the study period.

· Seven indicators worsened over the course of the study. Decubitus ulcer (bed sores), post-operative physiological and metabolic derangements,post-operative respiratory failure, post-operative pulmonary embolism (potentially fatalblood clots forming in the lungs) or deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the legs), postoperativesepsis, post-operative abdominal wound dehiscence, and accidental punctureor laceration all worsened with changes ranging from a one-percent increase in events to23.4 percent.These seven indicators accounted for 85.5 percent of the total patient safety eventsduring the study period.

Other interesting data:

· There were 97.755 actual inhospital deaths that occurred among patients who experienced one or more of the 15 patient safety events.

· 92,882 of these deaths could be directly attributable to a patient safety event.

· Hospitals that had received a Patient Safety Excellence Award had a 43% lower risk of experiencing patient safety incidents.

· If all hospitals had performed at the same level as the award winners, 22,771 deaths could have potentially been avoided and $2.0 billion would have been saved.

· Award winners in Tennessee are Baptist Riverside, Cenntennial, Memorial (Chattanooga), Northcrest (Springfield), St. Thomas, Vanderbilt and Williamson Medical Center.

You know that patient safety is not a priority in a hospital when your state regulatory agency orders that cameras be installed in your operating rooms.

Rhode Island Hospital has had five wrong-site surgeries since 2007.  Here is how the AP described the last incident:

The latest incident last month involved a patient who was to have surgery on two fingers. Instead, the surgeon performed both operations on the same finger. Under protocols adopted in the medical field, the surgery site should have been marked and the surgical team should have taken a timeout before cutting to ensure they were operating on the right patient, the right part of the patient’s body and doing the correct procedure.

The hospital was also fined $150,000.

Each of these incidents are completely unacceptable.  

Here is the recommendations  of the American College of Surgery on how these incidents can be prevented:

  • Verify that the correct patient is being taken to the operating room. This verification can be made with the patient or the patient’s designated representative if the patient is under age or unable to answer for him/herself.
  • Verify that the correct procedure is on the operating room schedule.
  • Verify with the patient or the patient’s designated representative the procedure that is expected to be performed, as well as the location of the operation.
  • Confirm the consent form with the patient or the patient’s designated representative.
  • In the case of a bilateral organ, limb, or anatomic site (for example, hernia), the surgeon and patient should agree and the operating surgeon should mark the site prior to giving the patient narcotics, sedation, or anesthesia.
  • If the patient is scheduled for multiple procedures that will be performed by multiple surgeons, all the items on the checklist must be verified for each procedure that is planned to be performed.
  • Conduct a final verification process with members of the surgical team to confirm the correct patient, procedure, and surgical site.
  • Ensure that all relevant records and imaging studies are in the operating room.
  • If any verification process fails to identify the correct site, all activities should be halted until verification is accurate.
  • In the event of a life- or limb-threatening situation, not all of these steps may be followed.

I have written about this subject several times, most recently here.  Here are the "best practices" on this subject as developed by the Tennessee Improving Patient Safety program>


The Commercial Appeal wrote an interesting story on medical malpractice litigation in today’s paper.  Read it here.

An excerpt:

Nationwide, the number of payments physicians made for malpractice claims fell to 11,037 last year — the lowest figure since the National Practitioner Data Bank began tracking data in 1990. Adjusted for inflation, the total $3.6 billion they paid was the second-lowest sum on record.

I was interviewed by the reporter and gave him the data that readers of this blog have seen about how few medical malpractice claims are filed in relation to the number of malpractice injuries and deaths and how the new statute has impacted the number of case filings.   He was kind enough to accurately quote me on one point:

"What’s happening to all the other dead people? All the injured people? The cases just aren’t being brought," said Nashville attorney John Day. "Is there a problem with too many lawsuits? I could make the argument that there’s not enough."


Every day, more than  5 Tennesseans die as a result of medical malpractice.

How do I know such a thing?  Simple math.  The Institute of Medicine has reported that 98,000 people a year die from medical malpractice.  Think about it:  the death rate from medical malpractice  is the equivalent of a large commercial airline crash every day that results in the death of 268 people.

The USA has about 300,000,000 people.  Tennessee has about 6,000,000 citizens, or 2% of the total.  Assuming that the rate of medical errors that result in death in Tennessee is no better and no worse than anywhere else in the country,  1960 Tennesseans die every year as a result of medical malpractice (2% x 98,000).  And that works out to 163 people per month.  That is the equivalent of a commuter jet crash in Tennessee every week that results in the death of about 40 people.

The deaths of 163 people per month equates to over 5 deaths per day.  If a carload of high school students were killed every day of every week of every month for an entire year do you think it would make the news?

Remember that the Institute of Health number does not include injuries from medical malpractice. One study reports the numbers of injuries at 1,500,000 per year.  

So, how many medical malpractice lawsuits are filed each month?  Since the medical malpractice law changed effective October 1, 2008, a total of 222 medical malpractice lawsuits have been filed in the state.  That is about 22 per month.  For reasons I have expressed before, the filings in the early months after the statute were passed  are not representative of what will occur in the future, and I think that we will see about 40 cases per month in August and September.  If another 80 cases are filed, the total for the year since the new law was passed will be 302. Remember, the number of deaths in that period totaled 1960.

Here are some of the filing numbers from the larger counties in the State:

  • Davidson        56
  • Shelby             55
  • Knox                31
  • Hamilton          2
  • Sullivan             8
  • Washington     8
  • Rutherford        8
  • Anderson          5
  • Wilson               4
  • Madison            6

A total of 34 counties had one or more medical malpractice filings.  Some 61 counties had no filings in the ten-month period ending July 31, 2009.

In the year ending June 30, 2008, there were 537 medical malpractice case filings for injuries and deaths.  Thus, it appears that filings for the year that ended September 30, 2009 will be down about 44%.  My prediction was that filings would be down about 40% as a result of the new law – I was a little off.  My guess is that filings will increase slightly next year, but I still predict that filings in the year beginning October 1, 2009 will be less than 400.

One last point.  The medical malpractice notice and certificate of good faith statute changed again effective July 1, 2009. .  If you don’t regularly do medical malpractice work but plan to file one of these cases, I suggest you read my article about how to give notice under the new law.

A couple of months ago I filed an application  with the American  Board of Professional Liability Attorneys seeking  board certification in medical malpractice cases.  I have been board certified as a civil trial specialist for over 15 years.   In fact, several years ago I served as President of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, the group that certifies civil trial specialists. 

For those of you who want to seek certification, here are the criteria:

  • Be in good standing with your State Bar;
  • Provide a writing sample, either trial memorandum or brief;
  • Pass EBOLA’s written examination in either Legal or Medical Professional Liability;
  • Have spent at least the last 5 years practicing in Legal or Medical Professional Liability;
  • In the last 3 years, have dedicated at least 25% of your professional time to  Medical Professional Liability;
  • In the last 3 years, have completed a minimum of 36 hours of continuing legal education (CALE) in  Medical Professional Liability, or met the CALE requirements of your State Bar, whichever is greater; and
  • Provide 6 references: 3 judges and 3 attorneys who practice in Legal or Medical Professional Liability.

I have to confess I was a little nervous about the examination.  I haven’t taken a test for over 15 years and had no idea what to expect.  I was told it was impossible to study for the test, and that advice was correct.  The test was at least 50% medicine and the breadth of the subjects covered made studying impractical if not impossible..  I received a break – one series of questions dealt with a medical subject on a case I tried in 2008.

This week, I found out that I had passed that examination and was granted certification.

There are 17 Tennessee lawyers certified in medical malpractice by the EBOLA, and only 11 of these lawyers customarily represent patients.  I am honored to be included in this group of lawyers.


The Washington Supreme Court has struck down the filing of a certificate of merit in medical malpractice cases in Washington state.   The certificate is required by RCW 7.70.150.

The opinion said that the statute was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers between the Legislature and the Judiciary and it denied medical malpractice victims equal access to the courts. 

The Court said that

“Requiring medical malpractice plaintiffs to submit a certificate prior to discovery hinders their right of access to courts. Through the discovery process, plaintiffs uncover the evidence necessary to pursue their claims. Obtaining the evidence necessary to obtain a certificate of merit may not be possible prior to discovery, when health care workers can be interviewed and procedural manuals reviewed . …  It is the duty of the courts to administer justice by protecting the legal rights and enforcing the legal obligations of the people. Accordingly, we must strike down this law

The case is Putman v. Wenatchee Valley Med. Ctr.,  Docket No. 80888-1 (September 17, 2009).  Here is the Court’s opinion.  Here is the concurring opinion.


The Georgia Legislature imposed a cap on noneconomic damages in meritorious medical malpractice cases in 2005.   The cap is $350,000.   In a case tried in Fulton County several years ago, the jury’s verdict exceeded the cap, and the Georgia Supreme Court is now considering whether the cap is constitutional.

According to a press release from the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and re-printed on the Atlanta Injury Lawyer Blog

“Betty Nestlehutt was the face of her real estate business,” said Malone. “Her face was so horrifically disfigured that she was no longer able to even leave her house. Photographs of her disfigurement are even too gruesome for public distribution. The damage is permanent. Years later she has to wear layers of special makeup to try to give the appearance of normalcy.”

The damage award?  $115,000 for past and future medical expenses and $1.15 million in noneconomic damages, including $900,000 for her pain and suffering.   The damage cap would have the effect of reducing the award by over 50%, down  to $465,000.

The press release has an extended summary of the trial judge’s ruling that struck down the caps as unconstitutional on three different grounds.  Click on "Continue reading" to see the summary of Judge Diane Bressen’s order as set out in the press release.





Here it is:

A limit or cap on noneconomic damages, however, invades the right to a jury trial by usurping one of the fact-finding responsibilities of the jury. If the amount of noneconomic damages awarded by the jury exceeds the statutory cap, this Code section automatically and arbitrarily reduces the verdict, without consideration of the evidence, the record, or any other fact produced at trial and found by the jury. The limitations imposed by O.C.G.A. 51-13-1 render the right of the jury to assess damages meaningless… The cap so interferes with the determination of the jury that it renders the right of a jury trial wholly unavailable.

Additionally, Judge Bessen also found that the cap on damages violates the Separation of Powers Doctrine contained in the Georgia Constitution. Three other states’ supreme courts, with similar constitutional provisions, also have struck down caps on damages on this basis. The Georgia Constitution states that: “The legislative, judicial and executive powers shall forever remain separate and distinct, and no person discharging the duties of one, shall, at the same time, exercise the functions of either of the others.” One distinct function of the judicial branch is that judges have the exclusive right to award to a party a “remittitur” – or a new trial – if a judge finds that a verdict is either excessive or inadequate. Judge Bessen’s order declares the cap on damages statute to be a “legislative remittitur” and that the legislature has unconstitutionally invaded the exclusive role of the judiciary to find facts and control judgments.

“Equally important,” the judge writes, “it does so without the option of a new trial for the injured plaintiff. As such, it unduly encroaches upon the judiciary’s constitutional right and prerogative to determine whether a jury’s assessment of damages is either too excessive or too inadequate within the meaning of the law.”

The third violation of the Constitution Judge Bessen found was that a cap on damages violates the Equal Protection provisions of the Georgia Constitution which state: “No persons shall be denied the equal protection of the laws.” To examine this violation, Judge Bessen explored whether there was a “rational relationship” between the government’s purpose and its enacted statute which treats similar parties in very different, unequal ways.

The rational relationship test basically states that a statute may be valid as long as it has a rational relationship to a governmental purpose. In the case of SB 3, the government’s stated purpose was to “promote predictability and improvement in the provision of quality health care services and the resolution of healthcare claims…, assist in promoting the provision of healthcare liability insurance by insurance providers…, [and addressed concerns about] medical providers and facilities leaving the state and the cost of malpractice awards.” For a law to be valid, a rational relationship to those goals must be proven. Judge Bessen found that the cap on damages failed the rational relationship test completely.

In holding the cap on damages provision unconstitutional, Judge Bessen wrote:

After review, this Court finds that there is no rational relationship between statute and the expressed government interest. Most obviously, it is a complete contradiction to state that the overall quality of healthcare would be improved by shielding negligent healthcare providers from liability. In fact, as recognized by other courts, a cap on noneconomic damages actually diminishes tort liability for healthcare providers and diminishes the deterrent effect of tort law… There is absolutely no evidence that these objectives are achieved by imposing a financial burden on the most victimized of plaintiffs… Based on current statistics, limiting noneconomic damage caps is not rationally related to the state purpose of reducing medical malpractice insurance rates… it appears that this statute was enacted arbitrarily, based upon speculation and conjecture rather than empirical data.

Finally, Judge Bessen found that the cap on damages violates Equal Protection because it creates different classes of victims—those injured by healthcare providers and those injured by others and those who are catastrophically injured and those who are less severely injured. Judge Bessen penned, “The cap’s greatest impact falls on those who are most severely injured, and creates classes of fully compensated victims and those only partially compensated… Similarly, the noneconomic damages cap discriminates against low-income individuals who are unable to prove large economic damages but nonetheless may sustain large noneconomic damages.”

The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case yesterday, the first time it has heard a challenge to the constitutionality of the damages caps.


A reader sent me an article in September – October 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine  that discusses the work of Dr. Atul Gawande.   Dr. Gawande is very interested in patient safety.  One of his interests is the use of medical checklists, a subject I have addressed in a previous post.

Apparently,  Gawande and his colleagues developed a checklist for surgery patients.  The list, described in the article as addressing "rudimentary tasks" (e.g. confirming the patient’s identity), had some amazing results.  In one year of use in 8 different hospitals around the world, the rate of complications had dropped one-third; surgicial-site infections by half, and deaths of surgical patients by nearly half.

Seven countries and more than two dozen states require the use of surgical checklists.  One wonders why every state in the Union does not require them.

Gawande’s team is developing other checklists for "perinatal care, emergency care, trauma care, burn care, and for managing a particularly troublesome type of bacterial infection."

Gawande described the  work in this area as consisting of "ridiculously primitive insights."  He said in an article he wrote for the New Yorker:  "But, really, does it take [distinguished professional degrees] to figure out what house movers, wedding planners, and tax accountants figured out ages ago?"  

By the way, I have not identified the reader who sent me the article because I do not know that he wants to be identified.  You know who you are.  If you want me to give you credit, let me know and I will do so.  Whether you want credit or not, please keep sending me information – I really appreciate it.  As I am sure you guessed, I am not a regular reader of Harvard Magazine and my college don’t publish no such thing, least as far as I know.