Mobile, Ala. – On June 25, 2012, a Mobile, Alabama, state court jury returned a $15 million verdict against Springhill Memorial Hospital for the wrongful death of a 45-year-old married mother of three who walked into the hospital under her own power on November 7, 2008 for diagnostic work, and who later underwent successful cardiac bypass surgery that same morning. That evening, 24 minutes following the administration of an overdose of a powerful anesthetic medication, Theresa Oden suffered a cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead 18 minutes later.
The jury of twelve unanimously determined after a two-week trial that the hospital was liable for placing Mrs. Oden’s care in the hands of an inappropriately trained and unqualified nurse. The nurse, who had come on duty in relief of Mrs. Oden’s primary post-op care team only 25 minutes prior to administering the drug, made numerous medical errors while administering Propofol (aka Diprivan) – the same drug implicated in the death of Michael Jackson.
According to Joseph M. (“Buddy”) Brown, Jr., and J. Brian Duncan, Jr., of Mobile’s Cunningham Bounds, the trial evidence established that Mrs. Oden was an “ideal” “low risk” candidate who underwent the triple bypass surgery without a hitch. That afternoon, her recovery in Springhill’s Cardiac Recovery Unit (CRU) proceeded for over 6 hours without complications and just as hoped for until the nurse, a newcomer to the CRU’s staff, administered the overdose of Propofol, causing the patient to immediately fall into a coma accompanied by descending and unarrestable blood pressures. Brown stated, “The heart surgeon, Dr. Terry Stelly, did a perfect job in completing Theresa’s three-vessel bypass surgery, and confirmed the success of his revascularization of her heart by a post-surgery Doppler flow study. Following her death, an autopsy confirmed the surgery’s success and the belief that the bypass team had indeed given Theresa what should have been a new lease on life.” Dr. Stelly testified that he was “devastated” to learn the morning following the surgery that his patient had died following the surgery.
Duncan explained that the case also involved proof of cover-up and destruction of medical evidence. “The nurse made numerous changes to Theresa’s vital signs, ventilator settings, and other critical evidence in an effort to hide her wrongdoing. The leftover Propofol and the computer memory from the pump allegedly used to administer the medication to Theresa were discarded or destroyed following her death ... all in violation of the hospital’s policies and procedures governing medication-related deaths. The evidence also suggested that Springhill was an active participant in the cover-up. In fact, when David Oden went to the hospital shortly after his wife passed away to obtain a copy of his deceased wife’s medical records, he was given a set of records by Springhill that had many entries altogether different from the records produced to us by the hospital once the lawsuit was filed. It took us over three years, and three separate trips to the Supreme Court of Alabama, before we were finally able to present the jury with the real truth about what happened to Theresa Oden that evening.”
With the help of Mobile County’s former Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Leroy Riddick, Jr., who served as one of plaintiff’s expert witnesses, the jury determined that Mrs. Oden was given an anesthetic dose of Propofol, rather than the “light sedation” ordered by her physician, while being left without the protection of a ventilator. As a consequence, Mrs. Oden lapsed into a deep coma from which she never recovered. Dr. Riddick explained that the incorrect administration of Propofol was “the only plausible explanation” for Mrs. Oden’s untimely and unnecessary death.
Testimony from another of plaintiff’s expert witnesses, internationally renowned anesthesiologist and critical care specialist, Dr. John Downs, of Dunnellon, Florida, also zeroed in on the nurse’s improper administration of Propofol while not providing mechanical ventilation for a patient being treated with the powerful, fast-acting, and potentially deadly anesthetic medication. Dr. Downs explained that there was a direct causal relationship between the improper administration of the Propofol and Theresa’s demise. He described how she lapsed immediately into a coma, accompanied by respiratory depression and plummeting blood pressures, while the nurse failed for twenty-five minutes to call a physician or anyone else for help.
The Oden family’s nursing expert witness, Kim Smith, R.N., of Phoenix, Arizona, described numerous breaches of the applicable standard of care, including:
- Springhill’s employment of a nurse in its Cardiac Recovery Unit who had none of the required paperwork establishing that she had been appropriately trained, preceptored, and tested in order to be given the responsibility for monitoring and caring for recovering heart bypass patients;
- Springhill’s employment records demonstrating that its nurse had virtually no experience in providing care to post-cardiac bypass surgery patients and no proficiency in administration of the dangerous anesthetic, Propofol;
- Springhill ‘s nurse’s repeated failure to follow physicians’ orders, coupled with her “practicing” on that evening beyond the scope of her competency while left unsupervised by the hospital;
- The nurse’s admission that she observed profound neurological and blood pressure changes in her patient which she recognized were directly related to the Propofol administration, but never called for help from any physician or from her own hospital’s Rapid Response Team as required;
- The nurse’s administration of Propofol without first ensuring that the patient was protected by a mechanical ventilator, and then failing to respond correctly and immediately once she realized her mistake;
- The hospital’s loss, destruction, and deletion of critical medical records. “Failing to keep timely and accurate patient records is a clear violation of Alabama law, stated hospital policy, and the requirements for continuing certification as a licensed hospital,” she said.
Duncan argued that the case was about much more than just Theresa Oden’s wrongful death. “It is about the rights of patients at hospitals in Mobile and throughout Alabama to be cared for by well-trained and competent nursing personnel. It’s also about the right of physicians and surgeons to be able to expect that their patients will be cared for by qualified nurses. And it’s also about putting a stop to the destruction and withholding of evidence when medical errors occur. The jury obviously decided that these practices were unacceptable for a hospital in Mobile County, or for any hospital in Alabama for that matter.”
Brown concluded, “Alabama’s Wrongful Death Act was passed by our Legislature 160 years ago in recognition of the fact that all human life is precious and worthy of preservation, no matter whether you are an executive, a schoolteacher, a homemaker, or a child. To ensure that we protect everyone’s life without discrimination, Alabama law provides that a jury in a wrongful death case must assess the conduct of the alleged wrongdoer, and if the wrongdoer has been shown to be legally responsible for the death, then the amount of the verdict should seek to accomplish two purposes: first, the rendering of a judgment which is commensurate with the enormity of the wrongdoing as demonstrated by the evidence in the case; and second, the delivery of a solemn warning to both the defendant and to others similarly situated that conduct of the same or similar nature in the future will be met with similar results. In this case, the Mobile County jury, which was comprised of twelve intelligent, interested, involved, concerned and honest citizens from all walks of life, unanimously determined that a substantial verdict was necessary in order for Springhill Hospital and other hospitals to understand not only that patients deserve and are entitled to truly quality medical care and medical care providers who have been appropriately trained and tested, but also that honesty and integrity form a foundation of trust and a bond which is at the center of every hospital-patient relationship. That bond between the patient and the hospital cannot be broken by the hospital without consequences. Patients choose their hospital based on trust. Trust that the hospital will provide competent nurses and other personnel to be the eyes and ears of their physicians; and trust that if something goes wrong, that their hospital will level with them and tell them the truth. This verdict is a reflection of what happens when a health care provider violates that trust.”