Infection Misdiagnosis Leads to Amputation and Big Payout for Pensacola Fireman

Back in May, a Pensacola fireman and his wife were awarded $7.6 million after winning a medical malpractice lawsuit stemming from his doctor’s misdiagnosis of a bacterial infection as an ankle sprain. 

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

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— Updated on June 28, 2022

Infection Misdiagnosis Leads to Amputation and Big Payout for Pensacola Fireman

The doctor’s medical misdiagnosis resulted in the eventual amputation of the lower portion of his right leg. The verdict represents a sizable award for Florida plaintiffs. In Florida,  the average medical malpractice payout is around $250,000. Furthermore, the chances of plaintiffs winning at trial hover around the 23% range. Notably, Florida statutes previously capped noneconomic damages to $500,000 or $1,000,000 (depending on the injury). However, a few years ago, the Florida Supreme Court held that such damages caps were unconstitutional. Moreover, the court noted that the damage caps violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. The decision made the verdict award in the present case possible.

The Injuries

Back in September 2016, Michael Vahle was a 30-year captain with the Pensacola Fire Department. During this time, his right leg developed a blue discoloration. His leg began to ache after exposure to the waters of Pensacola Bay. When the condition worsened by the next day, he visited Ascension Sacred Heart Urgent Care Center. At that point, his leg had developed blisters, the blue coloring had spread, and the pain had increased. Physician Fred Mixon treated Vahle. According to the complaint, Mixon “diagnosed him with an ankle sprain.” Mixon then “discharged him with crutches and instructions to ice and elevate.”

The following day, the plaintiff sought treatment from a podiatrist. The podiatrist “immediately suspected Mr. Vahle was suffering from an ongoing aggressive bacterial infection.” Following this, the podiatrist sent him to the West Florida Hospital Emergency Department. The emergency department diagnosed him with a “necrotizing bacterial infection.” This type of infection required aggressive treatment with antibodies and the removal of dead tissue. Vahle underwent multiple procedures to stop the infection’s spread and remove the dead tissue. However, ultimately, he needed to have an above-knee amputation of the infected leg.

The Case

Vahle and his wife, Jean Vahle, sued Dr. Mixon for medical malpractice related to the misdiagnosis of the bacterial infection. Additionally, Vahle and his wife sued Ascension Sacred Heart Medical Group. At trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the delay in the diagnosis and treatment of the necrotizing fasciitis, which the bacteria vibrio vulnificus caused, proximately caused Mr. Vahle’s leg amputation. After an eight-day trial, the Escambia County jury found in favor of the Vahles. The jury awarded $6,805,071 to Mr. Vahle and $787,371 to Mrs. Vahle. In a press statement released by plaintiffs’ attorneys, Cameron Stephenson and Justin Lusko of Levin Papantonio Rafferty, they expressed that: “This verdict, this result, is all about my clients…What happened to them should have never happened. Justice was done, and I have never been prouder in my professional career.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, necrotizing fasciitis is a rare bacterial infection. This infection rapidly spreads throughout the body and can cause death. In order to properly stop the infection, immediate diagnosis, antibiotic treatment, and surgery are required.

Interestingly, Vahle is not the only person in recent Pensacola history to suffer harm from vibrio vulnificus. Bernie Stewart, of Pensacola, contracted the bacteria in 2019 when he spent the day kayaking and fishing in Big Lagoon. Unlike Vahle, however, Sacred Heart Hospital immediately treated  Stewart, and he underwent surgery. However, the surgery was not enough to stop the infection. Stewart suffered from multiple organ failures and was placed under a medically induced coma. However, Stewart survived the infection and did not require amputation. But apparently, the presence of this rare flesh-eating bacteria is much more common in Florida than one may think.

As Dr. John Lanza, director and health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, explains: “If you test anywhere you’ll find it…If you go out into the Gulf and take a gallon of water right now and test it, you’ll find Vibrio.”

Misdiagnosis in Medical Malpractice Claims

Medical misdiagnosis is a common occurrence. Diagnostic errors adversely affect an estimated 12 million people each year in the United States. Most concerning, an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 people die each year from complications related to diagnostic errors. These deaths are part of a larger trend of medical errors in general. Medical errors result in over 250,000 deaths per year, making it the third-leading cause of death in the country.

A misdiagnosis claim may be due to a failed, late, or simply incorrect diagnosis that results in injury. Sometimes, a physician may make a misdiagnosis for one specific condition during an otherwise correct diagnosis of other conditions. That does not make the plaintiff’s case any less strong if the misdiagnosis nonetheless contributed to delayed treatment or injury. Like any other medical malpractice claim, a plaintiff needs to show that the physician did not adhere to the relevant standard of care in making their diagnosis and that such failure proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. And like all medical malpractice claims, the opinion of a qualified medical expert would be necessary to establish these claims.

Diagnostic Errors

The most notable aspect of the Vahle case, aside from the rare, flesh-eating bacteria part, is the speed with which the misdiagnosis and subsequent injuries developed. Within the course of three days, Vahle was exposed to the fatal bacteria and developed symptoms, then misdiagnosed, and finally treated, but only when it was too late. The relatively short delay resulted in a permanent loss of limb, among other tragic consequences. The Vahle case is a sordid reminder of how quickly diagnostic errors can result in irreversible damage and why these cases may lead to successful medical malpractice claims.

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