court upholds 75 million damage award against air force

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently upheld a medical malpractice verdict of $7.5 million against the U.S. government. The plaintiff is a woman who is married to master sergeant in the Air Force, and the medical treatment she received was from Air Force medical personnel at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. (Guam is part of the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction.)

The plaintiff went to the family clinic at Andersen Air Force Base several times in July and August of 2004. On those visits, she described having numbness in her groin, legs and feet. Despite the complaints, a doctor’s assistant and a nurse who saw the plaintiff failed to perform basic medical examinations to determine the cause of the numbness. They also failed to report the symptoms to their supervisors. The plaintiff’s condition was misdiagnosed and she left the clinic without ever seeing a doctor.

The plaintiff’s condition deteriorated over several weeks, but she was never given access to a doctor on her visits to the base’s clinic. As the numbness spread and the woman became incontinent, she demanded that clinic staff give her a referral to the medical center at Naval Base Guam.

The staff did give her a referral, but not an emergency referral. The routine referral she got required her to wait five days for an appointment.

At Naval Base Guam, a navy doctor immediately identified that the plaintiff’s condition was an emergency; she was suffering from a severe spinal condition caused by a herniated disc. The doctor had her immediately airlifted to Hawaii where an emergency operation was performed.

Unfortunately, as Pennsylvania medical malpractice attorneys find is common in misdiagnosis cases, the lengthy and needless delay in the treatment of the plaintiff’s condition meant that her medical problems were not resolved even by the subsequent emergency operation. She has been permanently disabled, and has trouble sleeping, walking and even sitting.

When the woman sued the Air Force, the trial court in Guam found in 2008 that the clinic staff’s negligent misdiagnosis and failure to treat the plaintiff’s condition caused her to suffer severe nerve damage, resulting in loss of sensation below the waist and permanent incontinence. The court awarded her $7.5 million in damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages.

The U.S. government filed an appeal on the grounds that the damage award was excessive, but the Ninth Circuit court has now ruled against them. The extent of the plaintiff’s injuries warranted the multimillion-dollar award, the court said.

Source: Stars and Stripes “Court upholds $7.5 million verdict for Air Force spouse who sued U.S. over treatment” 3/2/2011

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