Important Developments and a Beacon of Hope- Standard of Care Owed by Emergency Room Doctors

A recent $5.6 medical malpractice verdict against an Emergency Room doctor in Ohio which may help people across the country.

Significance

This case addresses the standard of care expected of Emergency Room doctors in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Finding

To provide an acceptable standard of care and avoid medical malpractice liability, Emergency Room doctors must look at available medical records and make basic inquiries of the patient before making diagnosis and treatment decisions.

Commentary

The jury’s finding seems unremarkable at first glance. Isn’t that what emergency room doctors are supposed to do?  Certainly, but it isn’t always done and wasn’t done when Aaron Riedel presented to the emergency room, twice, at Lodi Community Hospital in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. And the hospital and its insurance company must have felt fairly secure in the Emergency Room doctor’s actions as this case went to trial. Generally, only about 5% of all filed medical malpractice lawsuits result in trial.

Sadly, Aaron Riedel became a paraplegic, the jury found, as a result of the ER doctor’s negligent failure to order an MRI of his spine. Reidel had an infection (also known as an abscess) in his thoracic spine area which could and should have been surgically drained. However, it was not discovered when he presented to the ER despite existing and available medical records showing that Reidel had recently had a MRSA infection (commonly known as a “staph” infection), as well as Reidel’s reporting of the infection.  Instead, somewhat predictably, the MRSA infection caused irreversible, catastrophic neurological injury.

MRSA or staph infections can spread into the bloodstream and can seep into the spinal epidural space. Spinal infections are especially dangerous. As a result, ER doctors who suspect spinal infections as the source of back pain– and the doctor conceded that if he’d known of the recent infection, he would have suspected a spinal infection– should rule out the possibility of a spinal infection by taking MRI imaging studies of the spine.

This was not done as the ER doctor didn’t become aware of the staph infection, even on Reidel’s second visit to the ER for the same problem. The jury found that Reidel and his attorneys,William Hawal and Stuart Scott of Spangenberg, Shibley & Liber, proved the ER doctor failed to look at and consider all of the information available to him, and failed to ask basic questions that would have revealed the recent infection and prompted him to order an MRI of the spine.

Anybody who has been in an emergency room as or with a patient will recognize the difficulty sometimes in getting anyone to listen. This verdict helps affirm and place the duty on doctors to pay attention to and solicit information from their patients, where it should be.

Context

This is the second large verdict for Spangenberg, Shipley secured against Emergency Room doctors in the past several months. Nicholas DiCello secured a $4.58 million victory for the family of Nakeyia McMichael, an Akron woman who died the day after visiting the emergency room for severe headaches and being sent home for migraines. Similar to the Riedel case, McMichael had an underlying condition, Lupus, which was ignored. If her Lupus were considered during either of her emergency room visits, the doctors could have prevented tragedy.

Hopefully, these two results will help patients in Ohio and elsewhere when they visit Emergency Rooms. Failure to pay attention to patients’ reports of medical histories or to locate easily available records is simply unacceptable and dangerous. It is even more perplexing when considering that the average cost of an Emergency Room visit is between $1300 and $2,000 according to two recent studies.

These Ohio cases fit what seems to be a pattern across the country: in many recent cases, a patient with a pre-existing condition came to a local emergency room, several times, and informed the ER doctor about the condition, the doctor disregarded the statements and avoidable catastrophe ensued. In one such lawsuit with at least a positive aftermath, the plaintiff, August de los Reyes, became paralyzed and received a $20 million settlement. De los Ryes, a former top designer at Microsoft, is working with the Washington State hospital who didn’t take proper care of him to prevent future similar oversights from occurring and to create a case study for what went wrong. He says, “It would be a mistake to treat this as an isolated incident limited to a single provider. Let’s take all of the lessons we’ve learned and use them to make hospital everywhere safer for patients.”

For More Information

Doctors Seek To Learn From Past Malpractice Mistakes To Improve HealthCare  Wall Street Journal Article

Planetree Organization Seeking to Advance Plaintiff-Centered Care

Hospital Corporate Responsibilities in Medical Malpractice Cases