Medical Malpractice Ruling Awards Wrongful Death Damages

Imagine taking your mother to the emergency room for abdominal pain and vomiting. A CT scan and x-ray do not reveal any serious medical issues, and blood work merely shows that her potassium level is low. But within a few hours, she is dead. Now imagine witnessing her death – seeing her break out in convulsions, foam at the mouth, gasp for breath, and lose consciousness.

Such was the experience of one of Virginia Martin’s thirteen adult children. Ms. Martin’s daughter, Betty Farmer, brought her to the emergency room after Ms. Martin complained of abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ms. Martin was 69 years old, and she was otherwise in very good health at the time of her hospital visit. She did not have any heart problems or other serious health-related issues.

The ER physician determined that she suffered from simple gastroenteritis. A chest x-ray came back normal. Ms. Martin began to receive pain medication via an IV, and her blood work revealed that her potassium was low. A CT was performed and showed that there were no abdominal abnormalities that could have caused her gastric distress. Ms. Martin returned from the CT scan to the ER at 9:35 p.m. By 9:44, Ms. Martin started convulsing, her face turned red, she began to foam at the mouth, and her eyes rolled into the back of her head. She lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate her failed. Her cause of death was listed as acute cardiac arrhythmia and arteriosclerotic heart disease.

There were conflicting accounts of what happened between 9:35 p.m. and 9:44 p.m. According to Betty Farmer, a nurse entered her mother’s ER room around that time and administered undiluted potassium directly into her mother’s IV port. A medical expert testified that injecting undiluted potassium is “like putting acid in the vein,” as it would cause significant pain and burning and would disrupt the electrical activity that controls a normal heart rhythm. In fact, because of the lethal nature of undiluted potassium, Ms. Martin’s medical center had issued a written directive a few years prior that all potassium be removed from all patient care areas. The expert also testified that Ms. Martin’s reaction was consistent with an IV push of undiluted potassium. Her convulsions started within 60 seconds of the IV push, and she was no longer breathing within 90 seconds.

The nurse that allegedly administered the undiluted potassium offered a different tale. She argued that any injection would have gone into Ms. Martin’s tissue and not her vein because her IV line had been infiltrated. The medical center also argued that undiluted potassium was not available in the ER at the time of Ms. Martin’s death. While undiluted potassium was obtainable from the on-site pharmacy, there was no record that undiluted potassium had been given to Ms. Martin’s nurse.

Ms. Martin’s 13 children filed a lawsuit against the medical center, alleging that the potassium IV push caused their mother’s cardiac arrest. A jury ruled in their favor, finding that the medical center breached the standard of care in its treatment of Ms. Martin. It awarded her 13 children survival damages of $250,000, but no wrongful death damages or funeral expenses. Her children sought the latter two on appeal, while the medical center sought a reversal of the jury’s verdict and survival damages award.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the liability verdict and survival damages award, and it also awarded $60,000 in wrongful death damages to each of Ms. Martin’s 13 children and $6,833.72 in funeral expenses. Regarding liability, a jury’s factual determinations can be reversed only if the record establishes that its findings were manifestly erroneous and without a reasonable factual basis. A jury is entitled to great deference in its choice between two conflicting views of the evidence. The Second Circuit therefore determined that the jury had a reasonable basis for concluding that the medical center breached the standard of care based on Ms. Martin’s reaction and the jury’s credibility determination of the testimonies of Ms. Martin’s daughter and Ms. Martin’s nurse. The liability judgment was accordingly upheld.

Likewise, the survival damages award was upheld. Survival damages are awarded if the evidence demonstrates that the deceased suffered pain or suffering leading up to the time of death, and it is a factual determination as to whether pain or suffering actually occurred. Because the jury’s factual determination was reasonable, it was not clearly erroneous, and therefore the award was upheld.

But the Second Circuit amended the jury’s judgment to include wrongful death damages and funeral expenses. Wrongful death damages were warranted because Ms. Martin’s 13 children put forth evidence demonstrating their loss of love, affection, and support from their mother. The Second Circuit determined that “Ms. Martin spent an inordinate amount of love and energy helping and supporting her children in different ways,” and so it awarded each of her 13 children $60,000 in wrongful death damages. It also awarded funeral expenses in the amount of $6,833.72.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of medical malpractice, contact the Berniard Law Firm. Providing the best experts in personal injury claims, our law firm can handle all of your litigation needs. Call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005. An attorney specializing in personal injury will be more than happy to help you get the financial award you deserve.

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