On May 24, 2011, a 53-year-old woman presented to a Wisconsin hospital emergency department (ED) with complaints of severe abdominal pain, a rapid heartbeat, and a fever of 101.3°F. During her 9-hour visit, she was treated by a PA and his supervising physician. She was seen by the physician for a total of 6 minutes; the rest of her care was provided by the PA. The patient was discharged around midnight with instructions to contact her gynecologist in the morning for management of uterine fibroids. At the time of discharge, her temperature was 102.9°F.
The following day, May 25, the patient collapsed in her home and was transported to another hospital. She was treated for septic shock from a group A streptococcus infection. Although the infection was halted, the patient sustained ischemic damage to her extremities and a month later required amputation of her 4 limbs.The plaintiff claimed that the supervising physician was negligent in failing to diagnose the strep A infection, which, left undetected, led to septic shock. She also alleged that the PA should have recognized the potential for her condition’s severity to quickly escalate. She maintained that the supervising physician should have been more involved in her case because of its complexity.
Plaintiff’s counsel also argued that the PA should have provided “alternative medical diagnoses,” which would have prompted consideration of other treatment options. The plaintiff contended that under Wisconsin’s informed consent law, both the PA and the physician failed to disclose enough information about her condition and failed to inform her of any choices for treatment.
The defense argued that the plaintiff received proper treatment based on the information available to the providers at the time.
The jury found for the plaintiff and apportioned 65% liability to the physician and 35% liability to the PA. A total of $25,342,096 was awarded to the plaintiff.
This is a huge verdict. Cases involving group A strep or necrotizing fasciitis frequently give rise to large medical malpractice verdicts, because everything about them is difficult to defend: Although there is typically trivial to no trauma involved, the wounds from these infections provide explicit images of damage, intraoperatively and postoperatively. Vasopressors required for hemodynamic support or sepsis itself frequently result in limb ischemia, gangrene, and amputation. In this case, the plaintiff, as a quadruple amputee, was a sympathetic and impressive courtroom presence—the personal toll was evident to anyone in the room.
Two providers—a PA and a physician—saw the patient. We are told only that she complained of severe abdominal pain, rapid heartbeat, and fever, which increased at some point during her ED stay. We aren’t given specifics on the rest of the patient’s vital signs or examination details. However, we can infer that the exam and lab findings were not impressive, because they weren’t mentioned in the case report. But as a result of the failure to catch the group A strep infection, the plaintiff suffered what one judge hearing the case described as a harrowing and unimaginable ordeal: the life-changing amputation of 4 limbs.1 While the jury did not find the PA or physician negligent, they still found the clinicians liable and awarded a staggering verdict.
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