Medicolegal Issues

Did unsafe oxytocin dose cause uterine rupture? $3.5M settlement


Did unsafe oxytocin dose cause uterine rupture? $3.5M settlement

When a mother presented to the hospital in labor, the on-call ObGyn ordered oxytocin with the dosage to be increased by 2 mU/min until she was receiving 30 mU/min or until an adequate contraction pattern was achieved and maintained. Over the next few hours, the labor and delivery nurse increased the dosage of the infusion several times.

As the patient began to push, a trickle of bright red blood was seen coming from her vagina and the baby's heart tones were temporarily lost. When the fetal heart tones were restored, his heart rate was approximately 50 bpm. After vaginal delivery was attempted using vacuum extraction and forceps, an emergency cesarean delivery was performed, leading to the finding that the mother's uterus had ruptured.

The baby suffered a permanent brain injury due to hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy.

PATIENT'S CLAIM: The mother sued the hospital and on-call ObGyn. She alleged that the health care providers breached the standard of care by negligently increasing and maintaining the oxytocin at unsafe levels, which caused the mother's uterus to be overworked and eventually rupture. The rupture led to the child's hypoxia. An expert ObGyn noted that the patient's contractions were adequate by the time the oxytocin dose reached 14 mU/min, but the dosage continued to be increased.

DEFENDANTS' DEFENSE: The case was settled during the trial.

VERDICT: A $3.5 million Kansas settlement was reached.

When did the bowel injury occur?

One day after undergoing a hysterectomy, a woman went to the emergency department (ED) because she was feeling ill. She received a diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism for which she was given anticoagulant medications. The patient's symptoms persisted. Computed tomography (CT) imaging showed a bowel injury, and, 17 days after the initial surgery, an emergency laparotomy was performed.

PATIENT'S CLAIM: The patient sued the surgeon and the hospital. The hospital settled before the trial and the case continued against the surgeon.

The patient's early symptoms after surgery were evidence of a bowel injury, but imaging was not undertaken for several days. If the imaging had been undertaken earlier, the bowel injury would have been detected before it caused a rectovaginal fistula. An expert pathologist testified that the microscopic findings he detected postlaparotomy could only exist if a bowel perforation had been there for a significant period of time before the fistula developed. The patient's experts argued that the injury was not a "free perforation," but had been contained by her body, preventing the spread of the infection.

DEFENDANTS' DEFENSE: The surgeon maintained that the injury did not occur during the hysterectomy but developed in the days just before it was discovered. Over time, a collection of infected fluid at the vaginal cuff eroded into the bowel above it, creating an entryway for stool to pass through. Continuous leakage from the bowel for 17 days (the length of time between development of symptoms and discovery of the bowel injury) would have likely resulted in the patient's death.

VERDICT: A Missouri defense verdict was returned.

Did improper delivery techniques caused brachial plexus injury? $950,000 settlement

In April, a woman began receiving prenatal care for her 7th pregnancy. Her history of maternal obesity and diabetes mellitus, physical examinations, and tests suggested that she was at increased risk for having a macrosomic baby and encountering shoulder dystocia during vaginal delivery.

At 37 weeks' gestation, the mother was admitted to the hospital for induction of labor. Shoulder dystocia was encountered during delivery. At birth, the baby weighed 9 lb 10 oz and her right arm was limp. She was found to have a right brachial plexus injury involving C5‒C8 nerve roots and muscles. Two nerve root avulsions were evident on MRI and visualized by the surgeon during an extensive nerve graft operation. Arm function and range of motion improved after surgery, but the child has not recovered normal use of her arm.

PARENTS' CLAIM: Under the standard of care, the ObGyn was required to obtain informed consent, including a discussion of the risks of vaginal delivery (shoulder dystocia and brachial plexus injury), and the option of cesarean delivery. The patient claimed that the ObGyn neither obtained informed consent nor discussed these risks with her.

The labor and delivery nurse reported that the ObGyn told her, before delivery, that he was expecting a large baby and, perhaps, shoulder dystocia.

The ObGyn deviated from the standard of care by applying more than gentle traction to the fetal head while the shoulder was still impacted. The injury to the baby's right brachial plexus resulted from excessive lateral traction used by the ObGyn. The injury would not have occurred if a cesarean delivery had been performed. The mechanism of maternal forces injuring a brachial plexus nerve has never been visualized by any physician and is an unproven hypothesis.

PHYSICIAN'S DEFENSE: The ObGyn reported using standard maneuvers to deliver the baby. He applied traction on the fetal head 3 times: once after McRoberts maneuver, once after suprapubic pressure, and once after delivery of the posterior arm. He dictated into his notes that "We had to be careful to avoid excessive tractive forces." He claimed that shoulder dystocia is an unpredictable and unpreventable obstetric emergency, and that the injury was caused by the maternal forces of labor.

VERDICT: A $950,000 Virginia settlement was reached.

Wrongful death claim

On March 13, a 76-year-old woman went to her primary care physician's office because of a vaginal discharge. A nurse practitioner (NP) diagnosed a urinary tract infection (UTI) and prescribed cefixime (Suprax). Four days later, the patient began to experience severe diarrhea and blamed the medication. At a follow-up visit on March 20, the NP switched the patient to sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim (Bactrim).

The following day, the patient was found unresponsive on her bathroom floor and was taken to the ED. It was determined that she had Clostridium difficile colitis ( C difficile ) and was admitted to the hospital. She developed acute renal failure, metabolic acidosis, hypovolemia, hypotension, and tachycardia. When she went into cardiac arrest, attempts to resuscitate her failed. She died on March 22.

ESTATE'S CLAIM: The estate sued the NP, claiming that the patient's symptoms did not meet the criteria for a UTI. If appropriate tests had been performed, the correct diagnosis would have been made and she could have received potentially life-saving treatment.

DEFENDANTS' DEFENSE: The NP claimed there was no negligence. Her diagnosis and treatment of the patient's condition were appropriate in all respects. The development of C difficile is a risk of any antibiotic.

VERDICT: An Indiana defense verdict was returned.

Nuchal cord: Undisclosed settlement

During delivery, the labor and delivery nurses lost the fetal heart-rate (FHR) monitor tracing, resulting in their being unaware of increasing signs of fetal intolerance to labor. The nurses continued to administer oxytocin to induce labor.

At birth, a nuchal cord was identified. The baby was born without signs of life but was successfully resuscitated by hospital staff.

The baby was found to have sustained severe brain damage as a result of profound fetal hypoxia. The child will require 24-hour nursing and supportive care for as long as she lives.

PARENTS' CLAIM: The nurses and ObGyn breached the standard of care resulting in her child's severe brain damage. The hospital nurses failed to continuously monitor the FHR. Profound brain damage was preventable in this case.

DEFENDANTS' DEFENSE: The nurses continuously monitored by listening to sounds coming out of the bedside monitor even though no taping of FHR was occurring on the central monitors or FHR monitor strip. A nuchal cord is an unforeseeable medical emergency; nothing different could have been done to change the outcome.

VERDICT: An undisclosed Texas settlement was reached.

Surgical needle left near bladder

The patient underwent a hysterectomy on July 9. Because of an injury sustained during the operation, bladder repair surgery was performed on July 19. After that surgery, she reported bleeding and urinary incontinence. Results of a computed tomography (CT) scan showed that the bladder repair was not successful, a vesicovaginal fistula had developed, and a 13-mm C-shaped needle was found near her bladder. A third operation to remove the needle from her abdomen took place on August 16.

PATIENT'S CLAIM: The needle left behind after the second surgery caused a fistula to develop. The patient suffered mental and emotional distress from knowing the needle was in her abdomen. Foreign objects left in a patient during surgery are strong evidence of negligence.

DEFENDANTS' DEFENSE: The primary defense claim was the absence of causation--any negligence did not cause the injury. Defense experts testified that the needle was on top of the bladder and did move anywhere to cause damage. The patient developed a vesicovaginal fistula due to complications from the bladder repair operation and not from the needle. In addition, there was testimony that the third surgery was unnecessary because the needle would eventually flush out of the abdomen without causing damage.

VERDICT: A Michigan defense verdict was returned.

Claims cancer diagnosis was delayed

On October 1, 2008, a woman saw her family physician (FP) for routine care. Blood work results showed an elevated white blood cell (WBC) count. The patient claimed that the FP did not inform her of these test results.

One year later, the patient went to an urgent care facility where blood work was performed; the results showed a high WBC count. After a work-up, the patient was given a presumptive diagnosis of mantel cell lymphoma. By December 9, she had undergone the first round of chemotherapy. Subsequent tests revealed that the presumptive diagnosis was incorrect; she actually had low-grade lymphoproliferative disorder.

In lieu of this new diagnosis, the medical team offered the patient the option of discontinuing chemotherapy. She decided, however, to continue the treatment. Chemotherapy was followed by 2 years of rituximab/hyaluronidase human maintenance therapy.

PATIENT'S CLAIM: The patient presented her case to a medical review board. The course of treatment (chemotherapy plus maintenance therapy) left her with permanent heart damage and an elevated risk of developing secondary cancer.

The patient claimed that none of this would have happened if her FP had informed her of the October 2008 test results and recommended appropriate follow-up studies. The results of those studies would have given her the correct diagnosis and allowed her to receive prompt, proper treatment. The medical review board responded unanimously that the FP's conduct constituted a breach of the standard of care, but concluded that the breach was not a factor in the patient's damages.

The patient filed suit against the FP. An expert in internal medicine commented that, based on the 2008 WBC count, the tests should have been repeated and the patient should have been referred to a hematologist/oncologist. Failure to do so increased the patient's risk of developing cancer in the future.

DEFENDANTS' DEFENSE: The FP denied any breach of standard of care. According to her notes, she had shared test results with the patient on November 26 and recommended following up with repeat blood work. The FP blamed the patient for failing to follow-up as recommended.

VERDICT: An Indiana defense verdict was returned.

These cases were selected by the editors of OBG Management from Medical Malpractice Verdicts, Settlements & Experts, with permission of the editor, Lewis Laska ( The information available to the editors about the cases presented here is sometimes incomplete. Moreover, the cases may or may not have merit. Nevertheless, these cases represent the types of clinical situations that typically result in litigation and are meant to illustrate nationwide variation in jury verdicts and awards.

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