Healthcare Lawsuits And Infection Control: An Expensive Collision

Updated: Aug 25

Read about 6 serious healthcare lawsuits involving infection control failures in U.S. hospitals:

It won’t come as any surprise to infection control directors that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 1 in 25 hospital patients acquires an infection.

Still, when hospitals consider launching major new campaigns around hand hygiene, they tend to hit roadblocks. Cost challenges arise, as do morale issues. How will the medical staff react to constant reminders or possibly even compliance monitors?

But there are good reasons for hard-hitting hand hygiene campaigns, even if they mean making an investment or giving extra nudges to your staff. Patient safety is always paramount, and the potential tragedy of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) cannot be overstated: they kill 75,000 patients per year, the CDC reports.

When lawsuits arise, the damages can run into the tens of millions of dollars, and the publicity can tarnish an institution’s reputation for years. Here are 6 major lawsuits that resulted from patients acquiring infections while being treated in a hospital:

The Law At Hand:

Infection Leading To Amputation

David Fitzgerald, of Texas, was awarded $17.5 million (eventually reduced to $7.5 million because of Texas’s non-economic damages cap) after a stomach ulcer surgery left him a quadruple amputee, as he did not get the correct treatment.

While in the hospital, he developed a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection. The infection led to sepsis. After the disease spread to his limbs, the patient was in need of a quadruple amputation.

Sources: Infection Control Today (March 2016), US National Library of Medicine (July 2016)

The Scope Of The Problem

In 2016, nurse Kim Jeffery-Wolfert filed a whistleblower lawsuit against University of Cincinnati Health (UC Health). Jeffery-Wolfert, a former UC Health nurse, alleged that the hospital failed to prevent the spread of multidrug-resistant bacteria. As many as 100 patients could have developed an infection after undergoing a bronchoscopy.

She also claimed that once senior managers learned about the infections, they covered up the problem. As of March 2017, the lawsuit was still pending.

Sources: Becker’s Infection Control & Clinical Quality (June 2016), Fox News(June 2016)

Staph … From The Staff

Unsanitary conditions and practices led to an outbreak of staphylococcus infections at Bridgeport Hospital in 1996 and 1997. Five patients died. Dozens survived, but with disability or lifelong pain.

A hidden camera outside an operating room showed that about half of the physicians did not wash their hands before entering.

After patient Gloria Bonaffini died and patient Eunice Babcock became permanently disabled, the two women’s families sued Bridgeport Hospital. They settled the case in 2001 for an undisclosed sum.

Sources: The Chicago Tribune (July 2002), The New York Times (July 2002), The Medical Malpractice Myth (2005)

Infection That Destroys Bone

A 2007 West Virginia case involved a 14-year-old girl who underwent surgery on her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). She contracted an infection that destroyed both her bone and the ACL graft she had just received.

It took four years and seven surgeries for the teenager to recover. The jury found West Virginia University Hospital liable for poor infection control. They awarded the teenager over $10 million in damages and medical expenses.

The reward was later reduced to $1 million under West Virginia’s Medical Professional Liability Act, but the damage to both the teenager’s life — and the hospital’s reputation — had already been done.

Sources: University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law (2009), The West Virginia Record (February 2008)

Not All Sexually Transmitted Infections Are Transmitted Sexually

A patient referred to as Kimberly F. in a lawsuit went to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in 1993 to give birth. She didn’t just end up with a baby — she came home with genital herpes.

Healthcare workers put Kimberly in the same room as a patient who was showing signs of an active genital herpes infection. They did not wash their hands properly when moving from one patient to the other, passing the infection onto Kimberly.

The hospital was found liable for the infection. Kimberly F. was awarded $125,000, and her husband was awarded $25,000 for exposure he would receive during marital relations.

Sources: Indiana Health Law Review (2009), University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law (2009)

Room For Error

Hospital-acquired infections are not new to this century.

In 1963, George Helman sued Sacred Heart Hospital in Washington when he developed a staph infection while recovering from surgery at the hospital. During recovery, his roommate began showing signs of a staph infection. However, the roommate was not put into isolation until four days later.

The nurses moved from one patient to the other, providing care. They failed to wash their hands between caring for the men. As a result, Helman contracted the same staph infection as his roommate.

The jury awarded Helman damages totaling almost $68,000 — equivalent to approximately $540,000 today.

Sources: Indiana Health Law Review (2009), Leagle (2015)

The Cost Of Penalties

Lawsuits aren’t the only expensive consequence of patient infections. Medicare has begun to withhold reimbursements for hospitals that do a poor job with infection control, as well.

According to a 2016 report in Becker’s Hospital Review, 769 hospitals will see a 1% reduction in Medicare payments during fiscal year 2017 because of high rates of hospital-acquired infections. Their collective loss? About $430 million.

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