UPMC ordered to pay $5 million in lawsuit

By Bobby Kerlik

Friday, February 6, 2009

An Allegheny County jury awarded a White Oak woman more than $5 million Thursday after determining that treatment errors at UPMC McKeesport caused brain damage that left her unable to care for herself.

Mary Ellen Pfeifer, 59, who worked for Mon Yough Community Services, was disoriented when she checked into the hospital on Dec. 21, 2006. Doctors found she had a severely low sodium imbalance, but was given four times the prescribed amount of sodium, said her attorneys Veronica Richards and Sandra Neuman.

“From her perspective, she wants to be able to stay in her home. To her, this (money) means she won’t be put in a nursing home,” Richards said. “The choices are bad and worse. But staying in her own home means a lot to her.”

Richards said the verdict, which she called uncharacteristic of Allegheny County jurors, is likely one of the 10 largest awarded in the county.

UPMC spokesman Frank Raczkiewicz declined to answer specific questions about the case.

“We are disappointed with the verdict and we do plan to file an appeal,” Raczkiewicz said.

The jury found three doctors named in the lawsuit – Hashim Raza, Stasia Miaskiewicz and Mubashar Chughtai – were not negligent. Only the hospital was found in error.

Attorney Brian O’Connor, who represented Chughtai and Raza, did not return a call for comment.

As part of the jury award, Pfeifer would be paid nearly $2.4 million up front, and $105,000 a year for the next 25 years for her care.

The lawsuit states that Pfeifer was prescribed 250 cubic centimeters of saline over an hour of treatment. Instead, she was given 1,000 cubic centimeters of saline. The rapid increase of Pfeifer’s sodium levels caused a condition that led to brain damage, her attorneys said.

Pfeifer is incontinent, can’t cook, has trouble walking and needs help eating and bathing, Richards said. Pfeifer’s daughter is caring for her.

Richards said the nurse who administered the wrong dosage was reading from a computer printout that came with the saline. Hospital safety protocols failed to catch the error, Richards said.

Common Pleas Judge Paul Lutty presided over the case, which began last month.

Bobby Kerlik can be reached at [email protected] or 412-391-0927.