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Estate Awarded $31M Following Delayed Malaria Treatment

In this wrongful death case, the plaintiffs sued the defendants for negligence in the treatment of a patient suffering from malaria after returning from work in Liberia. The jury found the defendants guilty, awarding the plaintiffs a verdict that, with interest, amounted to $31 million.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on November 3, 2022

Estate Awarded $31M Following Delayed Malaria Treatment

Case Overview

Case Name: Makiko Murakami and Jeffrey Tam, as Co-administrators of the Estate of Ryo Murakami Deceased, and Makiko Murakami Ind. v. Lutheran Medical Center and Margaret Kuhn-Basti, MD

Case Type:

Injury: Death; infection

Plaintiff Attorney: Bruce J. Ressler; Ressler & Ressler; for Makiko Murakami, Estate of Ryo Murakami

Defense Attorneys:

  • Wayne I. Rabinowitz; Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP; for Lutheran Medical Center
  • Alfred P. Vigorito; Vigorito, Barker, Patterson, Nichols and Porter, LLP; for Margaret Kuhn-Basti

Case Outcome: Verdict – Plaintiff

Award Amount: $31,000,000

What Happened?

A 33-year-old cinematographer, Ryo Murakami, died on June 29, 2013, while under the care of doctors at Lutheran Medical Center for malaria. On June 19, 2013, doctors at the medical center diagnosed Ryo with malaria when he went to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. The filmmaker told the doctors that his symptoms had started on June 16, following his return from working in Liberia.

A diagnostic test showed that Ryo had malaria. Malaria is a red blood cell infection that is contracted from a mosquito bite. The medical team concluded that the patient had contracted the disease in Liberia. Though prescribed prophylactic medication, Murakami did not take it during his trip.

Lutheran Medical Center admitted Murakami to the hospital for care from Dr. Margaret Kuhn-Basti, an infectious-diseases specialist. Dr. Kuhn-Basti first started treating Ryo with oral doses of chloroquine. Doctors use chloroquine, one of several antimalarial medicines, to prevent and treat malaria. Chloroquine, however, is not used to treat severe or complicated cases of malaria.

24 hours after prescribing chloroquine, Kuhn-Basti changed the treatment to intravenous administration of doxycycline and quinidine. Doctors use the combination of quinine with doxycycline for uncomplicated malaria caused by chloroquine-resistant parasites. For patients suffering from severe malaria, medical teams administer the two drugs intravenously. The day-later administration of the additional antimalarial drugs was not enough to save the filmmaker’s life. Ryo left behind a wife, Makiko Murakami, and two children under the age of five. Makiko gave birth to a third child after Mr. Murakami passed away. She was not employed at the time of Ryo’s death.

Allegations and Testimony

The estate of Ryo Murakami and Makiko Murakami (the “Murakamis”) sued Dr. Margaret Kuhn-Basti and Lutheran Medical Center for the wrongful death of Ryo. The plaintiffs sought damages for Ryo’s pain and suffering, his children’s loss of parental guidance, and the estate’s pecuniary—dependents’ loss of financial support—loss. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that Kuhn-Basti’s and the hospital’s staff’s failure to properly treat Murakami amounted to malpractice. 

During the two-week trial, Lutheran Medical Center and the plaintiffs agreed to a settlement with undisclosed terms.

Departure From the Standard of Care

At the trial against Kuhn-Basti, counsel for the Murakamis asserted that the defendants did not properly treat Mr. Murakami’s malaria on June 19, following his admission to the hospital. Counsel contended that Ryo’s malaria had developed into a severe state where the outdated chloroquine approach didn’t work. The plaintiffs’ attorney asserted that the outdated treatment protocol the defendants provided was a major contributing factor to Murakami’s death. The plaintiffs also argued that by the time the doctor prescribed the doxycycline and quinidine, and the hospital staff administered the drugs, Murakami’s malaria effects were already irreversible. The Murakami’s lawyer argued that the defendants should have given Mr. Murakami quinidine and doxycycline within the first 24 hours of his hospitalization. When Dr. Kuhn-Basti didn’t order this, she departed from an accepted standard of medical care.

In terms of assessing monetary damages, the estate had an expert filmmaker who testified that Ryo Murakami had great promise as a cinematographer before he died.

Defense Assertions

Defense counsel for Dr. Kuhn-Basti claimed that the resident (doctor-in-training) at the hospital who tested and evaluated Mr. Murakami did not inform Kuhn-Basti of Murakami’s malaria test results. The doctor’s lawyer also claimed that the resident had mistakenly told Kuhn-Basti that Ryo had traveled to Libya where malaria is not common instead of Liberia, where malaria is the leading cause of death. The resident denied the claims Kuhn-Basti made.

Another defense argument was that Murakami’s failure to seek timely treatment for the malaria symptoms he was suffering from caused his death. In the defense’s view, Ryo’s delay in getting medical help led to the fatal malaria progression. The defense also noted Murakami’s failure to take the prescribed prophylactic medication for travel to Liberia.

Lastly, the defense challenged Murakami’s professional ability—calling out that none of his films had won an award.

Who Won the Case?

After deliberating for three days, the jury found that Dr. Margaret Kuhn-Basti had departed from an accepted standard of medical care. Jurors further determined that Kuhn-Basti’s departure was a substantial cause of Ryo Murakami’s death. The jury awarded the plaintiffs an amount that, with interest, totaled $31 million for survival damages, past and future loss of earnings, and past and future pecuniary loss.

In this comparative fault jurisdiction, Kuhn-Basti and Lutheran Medical Center each bore 40% of the liability, while Murakami shouldered 20%.

Expert Specialities

The plaintiffs retained expert witnesses in:

The defendants retained an expert witness in:

Key Takeaways

This case reminds medical malpractice lawyers and their clients that substantial jury awards are possible even when a plaintiff is partially responsible for a wrongful death.

In determining past and future earnings and monetary losses for Ryo’s heirs, this jury apparently believed the plaintiffs’ film expert over the defense’s assertions that called Ryo Murakami’s professional abilities into question. This a good reminder to do your homework to find high-quality, credible expert witnesses for your cases.

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