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Amputee receives $62 million judgment for surgical error

Medical malpractice claims frequently include more than one defendant. Hospitals may share blame for mistakes made by careless surgeons. The employer can be held responsible for vicarious liability - the employee's negligence - and corporate liability for hiring a poorly trained, unqualified or incompetent doctor.

Massachusetts juries can decide defendants share equal or disproportionate fault in surgeon malpractice cases. A percent of damages is assigned among defendants and, on occasion, even to plaintiffs.

A woman with an ectopic pregnancy required surgery in 2009 to prevent the life-threatening condition of having a fetus develop outside the womb. Doctors apparently did not suspect or detect the patient's bowel was punctured during surgery, even after the woman complained of abdominal pain.

The patient was sent home, only to return to the hospital the following day with a severe infection. The delayed diagnosis allowed the infection to spread to the 33-year-old woman's legs. Within two months,gangrene set in and both legs below the knee were amputated.

Defense attorneys argued the woman understood risks were associated with the surgery. The hospital asserted doctors worked aggressively to save the patient's life as soon as the infection was detected. The jury dismissed the argument, along with a state health department's conclusion that the patient's treatment contained "no deficiencies."

The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff. The majority of the $62 million award addressed the former medical assistant's pain and suffering. All four defendants shared a portion of the blame.

The hospital will absorb 40 percent of the damages. The doctor responsible for the surgical error is liable for 30 percent. Two other physicians, who approved the woman's discharge without failing to test for the bowel condition, shared fault for the remaining damages.

Massachusetts law sets a $500,000 cap on general damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. The limit may be exceeded, when injury involves significant or permanent physical damage.

Source: Newsday, "Jury awards $62M to Winthrop-University Hospital patient who lost legs" Ellen Yan, Jan. 10, 2014

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