A man left paralyzed after a work accident recently received $15.5 million in damages from a Florida jury. The jury determined that the treating neurosurgeon failed to diagnose and treat the man’s injuries properly. This failure to treat the patient’s injuries resulted in the man’s paralysis. The jury also found a radiologist liable for missing signs of severe injury in a CT scan.
Both physicians were affiliated with Holmes Regional Medical Center, which will pay the damages award, according to the plaintiff’s attorneys.
What Happened in the Case
In December 2012, the plaintiff was painting lines on a Florida highway, when a passing vehicle struck him. An ambulance rushed him to Holmes Regional Medical Center. During the initial care, physicians amputated his right leg.
The plaintiff received a CT scan 48 hours after the amputation surgery. The radiologist, who read the CT, did not report certain findings on the CT scan. The specific findings included a T12 vertebral fracture and an epidural hematoma at the T12/L1 level. The radiologist also failed to recommend a follow-up MRI.
The neurologist stated that he not only saw the radiologists’ report but also examined the CT images. Nevertheless, the neurologist also failed to identify the damage or order an MRI for further review.
Three weeks later, the plaintiff told his nurses that he couldn’t feel when his bowels moved. An MRI ordered near that time showed a herniated disc penetrating the spinal cord. In late December 2012, another doctor delivered the news that the plaintiff had paralysis. This was the first time the plaintiff’s medical records ever mentioned a spinal cord injury, according to his lawyers.
The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that if the defendants had read the initial CT properly and ordered an MRI, they could have spotted the disc compression and addressed it via surgery. Had the defendants done so, the plaintiff’s counsel argued, they could have prevented the plaintiff’s paralysis.
Defense lawyers argued that the plaintiff was paralyzed in the accident itself, not from the physician’s failure to treat. They claimed that an MRI or further surgery would not have changed this outcome.
The jury awarded a total of $10 million in non-economic damages to the plaintiff. This total included $5 million for non-economic damages already incurred and $5 million for future damages. The plaintiff also received $2 million toward expected future medical costs.
The jury awarded the plaintiff’s spouse $2.5 million in past non-economic damages and $1 million in future damages, including pain and suffering.
Previously, Florida law capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims to $500,000 in most cases, with a cap of $1 million when medical negligence caused death or a vegetative state.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that Florida’s caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims violated the Equal Protection Clause of the state’s constitution. In North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan, the Florida Supreme Court held that “the arbitrary reduction of compensation without regard to the severity of the injury does not bear a rational relationship to the Legislature’s stated interest in addressing the medical malpractice crisis.”
Key Takeaways From the Failure to Treat Case
One significant issue in this case relating to non-economic damages was the plaintiffs’ future prospects, given his catastrophic injuries.
The accident injured the plaintiff’s right leg so badly that doctors amputated it shortly after he arrived at the hospital. In March 2013, doctors amputated his left leg due to injuries suffered in the crash.
At trial, the defendants’ attorneys pointed out that the plaintiff had lost both legs. The defense argued that the plaintiff would have lost both legs whether or not the neurosurgeon diagnosed and treated the spinal cord injury sooner.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers acknowledged that their client had lost his legs. However, they noted that the case wasn’t about this loss. Had the plaintiff not suffered paralysis, they argued, he would have had many more opportunities to regain mobility, learn new skills, and adapt to new ways of navigating a meaningful daily life.
“The case wasn’t about the loss of his legs,” said Kimberly Boldt, the attorney who represented the plaintiff. “There were a lot more options open to him if he did not have the spinal injury. [The paralysis] completely changed his ability to maneuver in the world with what was already going to be a significant disability.”
These arguments undoubtedly garnered more attention due to the lack of a cap on non-economic damages, as they focus directly on the plaintiff’s pain, suffering, and quality of life following the injuries.
Florida’s lack of a cap on non-economic medical malpractice damages gives the plaintiffs’ attorneys plenty of room to discuss a client’s pain and suffering, along with other non-economic losses. Meanwhile, medical malpractice defense lawyers will need to build stronger cases regarding the quality of life and future options.