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Medical Malpractice Award Brings South Dakota Husband Little Comfort

Medical Malpractice AwardFor Don McLaren, the end of the journey was bittersweet. A Rapid City, South Dakota jury awarded Mr. McLaren $776,000 in a medical malpractice lawsuit against Rapid City surgeon Wesley Sufficool. His wife, Karla, filed the lawsuit against Dr. Sufficool in 2011 after she was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease.

Mrs. McLaren was hospitalized in December 2010 when she underwent a cholecystectomy, or removal of her gallbladder. The gallbladder stores and concentrates bile, a substance produced by the liver and used to break down fat for digestion. Once the gallbladder is removed, metal surgical staples are used to close the internal incision.

Her health deteriorated after the surgery, and she was re-hospitalized in May 2011 severely jaundiced from a lack of liver function. It was then that doctors discovered surgical staples on her right and left hepatic ducts and cystic duct were preventing the flow of bile from her liver into her digestive system. The surgeon claimed that he did not put the staples where they were found.

The staples were removed, but by then Ms. McLaren’s fate was sealed, and she was placed on a liver transplant list.

In November 2012, Ms. McLaren was moved into a nursing home and in December 2012, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig disease. She died several months later at the age of 55.

Her autopsy could not conclusively prove death by Lou Gehrig’s disease or liver disease, so the jury was asked only to decide if Dr. Sufficool was liable for medical malpractice causing Ms. McLaren’s end-stage liver disease and suffering.

Don McLaren said that there’s little satisfaction in the malpractice award, only some relief, and that he fully expected Dr. Sufficool to appeal the decision.

4,000 medical mistakes a year that “should never happen”

In a study released in December 2012, Johns Hopkins researchers quantified the national rate of “never events”, occurrences that “should never happen during surgery.”

The study estimates that 80,000 “never events” occurred in American hospitals between 1990 and 2010.  The researchers estimated that a surgeons leave a foreign object such as a sponge or a towel inside a patient’s body after an operation 39 times a week, performs the wrong procedure on a patient 20 times a week, and operates on the wrong body site 20 times a week.

Using the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), a federal repository of medical malpractice lawsuits, the researchers identified 9,744 paid medical malpractice awards and claims over those 20 years, with payments totaling  $1.3 billion. Death occurred in 6.6 percent of patients, permanent injury in 32.9 percent and temporary injury in 59.2 percent. The researchers estimate that 4,044 surgical “never” events occur in the United States each year.

In their study, “never” events occurred most often among patients between the ages of 40 and 49, and surgeons in this same age group were responsible for more than one-third of the events. Sixty-two percent of the surgeons were cited in more than one separate malpractice report, and 12.4 percent were named in separate surgical never events.

The study advocates public reporting of “never” events, which would allow consumers to make more informed choices about where to undergo surgery, as well as “put hospitals under the gun to make things safer.”