The Washington Court of Appeals recently upheld the trial court in finding that in Washington medical malpractice law – as in baseball – there is no such thing as a “team” error.
A man underwent a six-hour heart surgery. Later he developed compartment syndrome – a known and serious, if rare, complication from long surgery. The compartment syndrome was not initially diagnosed, and by the time discovered had caused extensive and permanent damage to the man’s leg, including death of muscle tissue.
The man sued the hospital for alleged failure to timely diagnose compartment syndrome.
At trial both sides produced experts who testified that the man was attended to post-surgery using a “team” approach. The surgeons and the physician assistants made rounds together twice per day. In the team approach, multiple surgeons see the patient post-surgery, regardless of who is primarily in charge.
According to the hospital, at any time a patient needs assistance the physician seeing the patient is well-aware of what’s going on. “So we basically assume everybody is our patient.” The hospital witness testified that the “team” “evaluate[s] patients in such a way that everybody gets a chance to have input.”
The patient’s expert testified that the care fell below the standard of care because of a lack of proper monitoring and a failure to rule out a known possible complication after surgery. When asked whom he was criticizing, the patient’s expert admitted that he “was not certain entirely as to who was to blame” but blamed the surgeon of record, even though the surgeon of record “wasn’t necessarily in charge of this patient at the time that the diagnosis was made.” In fact, the surgeon of record was on the other side of the country post-surgery – and therefore was not supervising the “team.”
The patient failed to produce evidence of any particular person failing to meet the standard of care for their particular field of expertise. Instead, his attorney argued that the surgeon of record was negligent as team leader, and therefore the hospital was liable, too.
The trial judge explained in his ruling that “a team isn’t negligent,” and instead there needed “to be a negligent player on the team.” The patient’s attorneys having failed to produce proof of a negligent player on the team, the judge overturned the $583,000 jury verdict.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge, and upheld the result.
Medical malpractice is harder than it looks. Even when there are terrible results from medical care, the patient must prove that a particular health care provider breach the standard of care in their field of expertise, and that this breach of the standard of care caused the terrible result.
By personal injury attorney Travis Eller