A federal district court judge in Maryland’s southern division handed down a $14.2 million verdict to the parents of a child who sustained debilitating injuries from alleged medical negligence during surgery. The award followed an 11-day bench trial before U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chaung in July 2022.
According to the complaint filed in the case, in 2016, parent plaintiffs sought treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) for their nine-month-old son’s recurring ear infections. They were referred to otolaryngologist Dr. Scott Brietzke. After examining their son, referred to as Z.R. in the complaint, Dr. Brietzke recommended surgical ear tube placement and adenoid removal to address his chronic infections. The procedures required the administration of general anesthesia.
In accordance with Dr. Bretzke’s evaluation, the surgical procedures were scheduled for September 2016, when Z.R. was approximately one year old. However, the complaint alleges that Z.R. presented on the day of surgery with several significant risk factors that should have resulted in its delay or postponement. Namely, Z.R. was born with sickle cell disease, which hinders the ability of blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body. According to medical records referenced in the complaint, he had also been diagnosed with asthma and was “audibly wheezing” on the morning of the surgery. Furthermore, his presurgical American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) assessment placed him at a level III, which is “consistent with moderate systemic disease,” according to the complaint.
As contended by the plaintiffs, the above-outlined risk factors are well documented by medical literature as potentially causing severe complications in a surgery conducted with general anesthesia. However, the plaintiffs were purportedly never informed of the dangers that Z.R.’s medical conditions posed during his surgery, and the operation commenced as scheduled.
Per the complaint, shortly after the administration of anesthesia to Z.R., his blood oxygen levels dropped rapidly, while his heart rate became dangerously elevated. His condition continued to decline for roughly 30 minutes. Vital sign monitoring apparently showed a sustained decline in blood pressure and a consistently abnormal pulse rate, signs that Z.R. was “working very hard to breathe oxygen.” But despite these indicators of severe complications, Dr. Bretzke and his surgical staff allegedly failed to take corrective action until 40 minutes after the surgery began.
The complaint goes on to detail how the medical team eventually gave Z.R. a dose of magnesium sulfate medication in an attempt to stabilize his respiration, but it exacerbated his breathing difficulties, and his condition worsened. They again tried to administer two different types of medication intravenously, but surgical staff apparently failed to infiltrate Z.R.’s IV line. Meanwhile, Z.R.’s respiratory system continued to break down. He began to hyperventilate, but over 15 more minutes elapsed until surgical staff called an emergency “Code Blue” and initiated CPR and defibrillation. By the time Z.R. was finally stabilized and transferred to an intensive care unit, his brain had sustained severe oxygen deprivation.
After the failed surgery, Z.R. was diagnosed with permanent, significant brain damage. According to the complaint, he is “unable to walk, unable to talk, and is otherwise globally developmentally delayed.” His parents, along with their attorneys Robert R. Michael, Gregory K. Wells, and Andrew J. Hall of Shadoan, Michael, & Wells, LLP, and Joseph H. Ostad of the Law Offices of Joseph H. Ostad, PA, filed a medical malpractice lawsuit on Z.R.’s behalf in 2019. The lawsuit alleged that negligence on the part of medical staff at WRNMMC directly contributed to his injuries, and that his parents could not make informed consent for the surgery because the hospital did not adequately inform them of the risks involved. As WRNMMC is a military hospital under federal authority, the U.S. government was the named defendant in the complaint.
This was an unfortunate case of a minor experiencing horrific, lifelong brain damage. It was not, however, a birth injury case as the injuries did not stem from birth. Shadoan, Michael, & Wells, LLP are regarded as excellent medical malpractice lawyers. To see a list of some of the best birth injury lawyers in Maryland click here.
During the bench trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys presented an outline of alleged negligence that began in the weeks leading up to the surgery when the anesthesiologist assigned to Z.R.’s procedure, Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, expressed concerns about his preexisting conditions and was ignored. The legal team also admonished Dr. Brietzke for allowing a resident doctor with less training and experience to perform most of the surgery, even as Z.R.s condition declined catastrophically. They also argued that the failure of the medical team to appropriately administer stabilizing medication to Z.R. during the surgery was a clear violation of proper standards of care.
Judge Chuang agreed that negligence had occurred during the surgery, noting in his verdict opinion that “it is beyond dispute that as a result of the cardiac arrest, Z.R. now suffers from a permanent global neurological impairment giving host to a rise of disabilities.” However, he ruled against the plaintiffs’ additional informed consent claim. Chaung’s medical malpractice award to the Harris-Reese family totaled $14.2 million, including $11 million in future medical expenses.