At Lane & Lane, we take cases because we really believe in them, even when those cases are immensely difficult or complicated. We’d like to share with you the story of one of those difficult cases, fought on behalf of a woman who was left permanently disabled and imprisoned in her own body due to medical negligence. For over 10 years, our attorneys worked tirelessly to obtain justice for our client, and we are proud to report that Partners Steve and Scott Lane ultimately secured a multi-million dollar ($22,185,598.50) verdict in her case against Mercy Hospital & Medical Center. Here is her story.
Our client had had a congenital heart defect which was repaired by replacing her aortic heart valve. The replacement valve required that she take a blood-thinning medication, Coumadin, as a preventative measure so that she wouldn’t develop blood clots. Four years after the aortic valve replacement, she developed a dental abscess. She saw a dentist, who prescribed an oral antibiotic and instructed our client to return to him or go to the emergency room if it got worse. Over the next few days, the abscess and infection progressed, and developed into Ludwig’s angina, an infection of the dental floor and neck. This type of infection, if untreated, can progress to cause swelling near the larynx and can even close off the patient’s airway, making breathing difficult or impossible. She was seen at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, and it was determined that she needed an emergency awake tracheostomy to protect her airway.
Immediately after the emergency surgery, she was doing well. The infection was subsiding, and the hospital was planning for her discharge. However, five days later, she began to develop new drainage and then bleeding from the site of the tracheostomy. Unfortunately, this is when her story would begin to turn tragic.
On the night of February 27, 2005, our client began to show new drainage from the trach site. The nurse was called, but she didn’t notify any doctor. Later that night, our client started trickling bloody drainage from the site. The nurse described her in her notes as “tearful” and difficult to settle down at times.” The nurse sedated our client with Ativan to calm her anxiety, but again, no doctor was called. Our client woke up a couple of hours later, coughing up blood through the tracheostomy, and again, no doctor was called. She made it through the night without any apparent issues, and was seen by the ENT resident, who noted that she’d had “mild bleeding” overnight.
That afternoon, our client was taken to the cardiac catheterization lab for an examination of her valve replacement to make sure the infection hadn’t damaged it before she was discharged home. In the cath lab, the staff noticed she was bleeding from the trach site, and contacted the ENT service. The ENT resident came to see her, and cauterized the tracheostomy wound and repacked the site with Vaseline gauze. He entered an order to type and cross match our client for four units of FFP (fresh frozen plasma, used to counteract Coumadin and make it easier to clot) and two units of PRBCs (Packed Red Blood Cells, used to replace blood loss) in case the bleeding started again, and our client was returned to her hospital room in the med-surgical unit.
Within an hour or so of her return from the cath lab, our client’s sister, who was in our client’s room when she returned, saw that our client was bleeding. She was very concerned, and notified hospital staff that there was a problem, but it was treated as “no big deal” because the woman’s vital signs were stable. The bleeding continued throughout the day, and her sister kept begging the hospital staff to pay attention to our client.
A nurse contacted the same ENT resident who’d attended to our client in the cath lab. A STAT order (means should be done as soon as possible) for the infusion of four units of fresh frozen plasma (FFP) was placed by the ENT resident, and then he left the hospital. He never returned or called to check on our client for the next several hours.
Our client’s sister remained at the hospital all afternoon and evening, and she kept calling the hospital staff to attend to her sister. Several sources corroborated the fact that our client was coughing up blood and clots at times through the trach. Her nurse charted a note that our client had stated, “I’m choking on these blood clots,” and that she’d been coughing up blood and clots through the trach. Finally, at 11:00 p.m., the nurse—who had little nursing experience and had cared for just one or two trach patients in her career—paged the medical resident on call. For the next hour and a half, there were no notes or orders in the chart that suggested that the resident responded to the nurse’s page in any way.
Finally, at 12:30 a.m., the nurse paged the medical resident again; she came and paged her senior resident. Neither of the resident physicians attending to our client had any trach management experience.
Ultimately, our client developed an airway obstruction and suffered respiratory distress, respiratory arrest, and brain damage from lack of oxygen. This left her disabled from terrible tremors of all of her muscles, her face and all extremities, and affected all voluntary actions of any kind. These tremors are called active myoclonic tremors because they are affected by activity; the more the victim tries to do something, the more pronounced the tremors become, and the harder it becomes to do whatever the patient is trying to do. In this case, this condition affected literally every intentional act our client attempted. It caused wild tremors of her extremities, and because her facial muscles were impacted, also affected her speech to the point where it was very difficult for many people—even those who knew her—to understand her. Walking and standing were impossible because of the tremors, and so she was confined to a bed and wheelchair. She was unable to transfer from one place to any other without help, and so she literally was stuck wherever someone put her. Where she had been a completely independent working single mother of six, she was now completely dependent on others for all of her activities of daily living.
Hospitals must respond quickly to problems and complications, especially when those complications could create potentially life-threatening problems for the patient. Because our client’s family was unable to get timely help at Mercy Hospital, a medical disaster occurred, and a question of medical malpractice arose. The patient and her family turned to Lane & Lane to investigate what had happened and how the hospital staff’s actions—or lack of action—contributed to her injuries.
After thoroughly investigating the case and ultimately filing a lawsuit, our attorneys argued that Mercy Hospital had been negligent in handling our client’s post-tracheostomy care and did not respond to the bleeding and obstruction of her tracheostomy in a timely manner. Managing partner Steve Lane worked up the investigation and litigation, and Scott and Steve Lane tried the case, successfully arguing that:
The hospital made no settlement offer at all during the more than ten years the case was pending before trial. During that time, Steve and Scott took 93 depositions, obtained multiple versions of what were supposed to have been “complete” hospital records; worked with leading ENT, neuroradiology, nursing, hospital administration, hematology, physiatry, and other experts in their efforts to investigate and successfully prosecute the case; and even had to file suit in Virginia to locate a nurse whose notes were missing from the hospital record.
A few days before the final verdict was issued, the defense offered a “high-low agreement,” which would allow the trial to proceed but set a minimum amount the client could recover as well as a cap on the damages that could be claimed. In this case, the hospital’s offer would have guaranteed the client a minimum recovery of $500,000 but capped the amount of maximum recovery at $7 million. However, Partners Steve and Scott Lane knew that the client deserved more for what she had been through. While the jury was deliberating, the hospital’s attorneys withdrew their offer.
Steve and Scott tried the case together, ultimately obtaining a $22.18 million verdict on behalf of their client, which included compensation for:
While a large verdict in a difficult case like this one is usually a cause for celebration and relief, the news of this success was bittersweet. Unfortunately, after ten years spent waiting for resolution, the client passed away the evening before the verdict was issued. Despite the sad ending to our client’s story, we are so proud of Steve’s and Scott’s work in this case, and we’re grateful for contributions by Partner Mark Brown, associate attorneys Ray Steadmon and Olivia Sarmas, and law clerk Kevin Griffin, in particular, who all literally worked around the clock getting ready and preparing the case in the three months before the trial. Everyone was amazing and tireless in making this case a success for our client and her family.
Our victory was truly a team effort, with literally all of our office pulling together for one common goal…winning for our client. Over the years, our client became a part of our family, and we became a part of hers.
If you or a loved one has been hurt because a doctor, nurse, hospital, or other care provider failed to respond adequately to a medical issue, you should know that you can get answers and legal support through this difficult time. Start learning more about your rights today by reading through our free book, What to Do If You Have Been Injured by Your Doctors or Hospital, or call our Chicago law office directly at 312-332-1400 for immediate assistance.