Florida Jury Awards $28.45 Million in Meningitis Misdiagnosis Case

Earlier this month, Palm Beach County Civil Division jurors awarded $28.45 million in damages to the mother of a Boynton Beach child who suffered a stroke and permanent brain damage after two doctors misdiagnosed what was a very serious, but eminently treatable, infection of the child’s nervous system. The child had presented at Bethesda Memorial Hospital with a persistent fever, and his doctors correctly ordered a diagnostic spinal tap; but when spinal fluids showed the presence of bacterial meningitis, the doctors failed to take notice.

The child subsequently fell victim to a massive stroke that left him with profound and permanent developmental disabilities. His doctors alleged that they eventually did diagnose and treat for meningitis (and they are planning to appeal the verdict). However, in an interview given to the Palm Beach Post on the occasion of the verdict, the family’s medical malpractice attorney discounted this better-late-than-never argument, noting that all the injuries and losses suffered by the child and his family could easily have been prevented through timely administration of antibiotics.

The hefty verdict in this case included $12 million in non-economic damages reflecting the patient’s pain and suffering. Though Florida legislation imposes a cap of $1 million on such non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, the successful plaintiff in this lawsuit may ultimately recover the full verdict amount, because the Florida Supreme Court is currently in the process of deciding a case, brought by key policy-makers, that seeks to get rid of the legislated malpractice damage limits.

Types of Diagnosis Errors
Formulating a patient’s diagnosis is a multi-staged process. That process, sometimes described as ‘differential diagnosis typically involves consideration of all possible diagnoses, followed by a systematic narrowing down of diagnoses based on health history, examination, and test results. During this complex analysis, a health care provider can overlook a possible diagnosis, assign a wrong diagnosis, or initially misdiagnose, and then later correct the diagnosis. Missed, wrong, and delayed diagnoses are all potential bases for malpractice claims, when other prerequisites for a valid claim are also present; and a health care provider may be liable, moreover, not only for basic diagnosis errors, but also for failure to diagnose a second condition or disease related to the initial one diagnosed, especially when the two conditions tend to occur together in patients.

As is true in medical malpractice cases, generally, a diagnosis error is a valid basis for a damage claim only when there is negligence, or failure by the treating provider to perform in a reasonably skillful way that meets prevailing standards of practice. The reasonableness of a provider’s diagnostic decision-making is typically something that a competent medical malpractice attorney will want to evaluate with the assistance of an appropriately specialized medical expert.
The attorney and medical expert will also need to pin down the nature and extent of actual harm caused to the victim of a negligent diagnosis error. This harm may be either a new condition caused directly by the negligent diagnosis error, or an existing condition that progressed to a level that would not have been reached had the correct diagnosis initially been made. Where an existing condition worsened needlessly as a result of a negligent diagnosis error, there may also be secondary harms caused by harsher treatments that became necessary as a result of treatment delay or inaction.

Diagnosis Errors Frequent and Widespread

The conditions most conducive to diagnosis errors arise in emergency rooms, where time pressures can compromise health care providers’ reasoning processes. Not surprisingly, diagnostic errors plague intensive care units, as well. According to a study of autopsy reports published in the July, 2012 edition of BMJ (British Medical Journal) Quality and Safety, approximately 40,500 patients die in American intensive care units each year as a result of diagnosis errors. Misdiagnosis can happen in any medical setting, however, and since there is therefore a substantial risk that a patient will encounter this type of medical error at some point in his or her lifetime, all consumers of health care services would do well to keep informed of both the medical and legal resources available to them, should the quest for good health unexpectedly bring misfortune.

To receive help on these issues in the Miami area, please get in touch with the Miami medical malpractice attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz P.A. We are available for free consultations and can be reached at (305)371-6000 or info@gslawusa.com.

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