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12 Most Famous Medical Malpractice Cases – Dirty Dozen of Medical Mistakes starstarstarstarstar

While we live in a time of great medical advances, serious medical mistakes take an enormous number of lives. By the last count, independent studies suggest that between 200,000 and 400,000 people die each year in the United States from preventable medical mistakes. That doesn’t even count the millions maimed and injured.

Why are these mistakes continually occurring? Why are people dying each day from preventable medical errors?

By examining some of the more famous medical malpractice cases – many of which were in the news – we can sometimes help our medical professionals improve safety and change their procedures. But nothing can help when there is just incompetent care provided.

Below are just 12 of the most famous medical malpractice cases from recent years: 

1. Failure to obtain a blood type

famous medical mistakes cases - duke university
Image via medicine.duke.edu

Duke University Hospital is a prestigious and respected medical facility. In 2003 it was the subject of national news when they performed a heart and lung transplant on 17 year-old Jesica Santilian without ever checking the blood type of the organ donors to see if they matched.

This is standard medical procedure. After the Duke doctors transplanted the organs, Jesica experienced severe brain damage and her body went into shock and shut down. It was only after this that the health care providers realized that that the donor of the new organs did not have the same blood type as Jesica.

To make matters worse, the hospital covered up this mistake for 11 days, then went public seeking another donor. By then it was too late as Jesica had sustained fatal brain damage. The doctor took responsibility for the error, and the hospital implemented a new system to double check transplants in order to prevent similar errors from occurring.

2. Surgery on Wrong Side of Head

famous medical malpractice cases - wrong site surgery

Wrong site surgery is what is called a “never event” in medicine because it is never supposed to occur. Yet it does with alarming frequency even today. Neurosurgeons at Rhode Island Hospital made not one, but three catastrophic medical mistakes by performing wrong site surgeries on three different patients’ heads in 2007.

Two of the mistakes were caught early enough to close the initial holes and treat the correct side, but the other surgery killed an 86-year-old patient. Believe it or not the surgeon who made these mistakes had his medical license only suspended for two months. So much for doctors policing themselves.

3. Wrong Testicle Removed

West Los angeles Hospital pictureImage by John Schreiber

An Air Force veteran went for treatment for possible cancer of one testicle. When Benjamin Houghton went into surgery to remove his diseased left testicle at West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, the surgeons mistakenly removed the right, healthy testicle instead.

The medical mistake was traced back to the patient’s medical record where the surgeon failed to mark the correct side before undertaking the operation. Mr. Houghton and his wife brought a medical malpractice case against the VA Medical Center for $200,000.

4. Wrong Leg Amputation

wrong leg surgery medical mistake

In one of the most tragic surgical errors, 52 year-old Willie King was supposed to have a diseased leg amputated in 1995. Instead the surgeon took the wrong one off. As in many wrong site surgery cases, there were a series of mistakes that led to the wrong leg being amputated.

The incorrect leg was listed in a number of key places including the blackboard in the operating room, the Hospital’s computer system, and the operating room schedule. The staff had sterilized and prepped the wrong leg for surgery before the surgeon, Dr. Rolando Sanchez, appeared in the operating room.

The doctor’s defense later was that both legs were unhealthy would have to be amputated. He was fined $10,000 and received a six-month medical license suspension. The cases against the surgeon and hospital were settled for $1.15 million.

5. Wrong Sperm Used at Fertility Clinic – Baby Born of Difference Race

mistake in sperm donation malpractice

A couple who were seeking fertility help were surprised to learn that the fertility clinic used sperm from another man to inseminate their eggs. 

During the in vitro fertilization, New York Medical Services for Reproductive Medicine used someone else’s sperm in Thomas and Nancy Andrews eggs. They had no idea until their baby was born in 2004. It was then that they noticed the baby’s skin was drastically darker than either of the Andrews.

Lab results and DNA testing revealed that Thomas was the baby’s biological father. The baby was of a different race than her parents. The Andrews brought a case against the owner of the clinic and the embryologist who processed the egg and sperm for insemination.

6. Wrong Organ Removed

milford medical center - wrong organ removedImage via umassmed.edu

In 2006 a patient went to have her gallbladder surgically removed by Milford Regional Medical Center in Massachusetts. Surgeon Patrick M. McEnaney instead took out the right kidney of this 84 year-old woman. 

This was caused by McEnaney’s error in  misreading lab tests. The surgeon was placed on 5 years probation by the state medical board.

7. Tumor Removed, Instrument Left

UWMC wrong surgery caseImage via uwmedicine.org

In 2000 Donald Church underwent surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. He was supposed to have an abdominal tumor removed. Surgeons did take out the tumor. But in its place they left a 13-inch metal retractor.

It took two months of pain before the surgical mistake was discovered. Mr. Church recovered $97,000 in damages. While these mistakes should never occur, this was the fifth incident in five years where this particular hospital’s surgeons had left surgical instruments in patients.

8. Patient Wide Awake During Surgery

medical mistake patient awake

When patients are placed under general anesthesia during surgery, they usually receive two types of anesthesia. One is a paralytic, to prevent movement, and inhalation anesthesia, to prevent pain and cause a loss of consciousness. 

In 2006 Sherman Sizemore underwent surgery. While the first agent, the paralytic, was properly administered, the second one was not. That meant the patients was awake and could feel everything but was paralyzed and could not move or speak.

16 minutes into the surgery the medical team realized this. Sizemore was awake! Overall the patient had nearly a half hour of conscious, painful surgery. The hospital never told him of this mistake. Even though he was unable to recall precisely what happened (they gave him an amnesia-inducing drug once they recognized the mistake) he knew something was wrong.

Sizemore never had any psychiatric or psychological conditions but now he had panic attacks and thought that people were trying to bury him alive. He also suffered insomnia and nightmares. A few weeks after the surgery he committed suicide. 

His suicide appeared to have been caused by his experience of anesthetic awareness, which affects an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 patients every year. Mr. Sizemore’s family sued Raleigh Anesthesia Associates in West Virginia for failing to properly anesthetize him, which they believe caused their father to kill himself. The case was settled confidentially.

9. Woman Loses Both Breasts Unnecessarily

both breasts amputated medical mistake

When 35 year-old Darrie Eason was told she had breast cancer, she went in for a double mastectomy on her doctor’s advice. After the 2007 surgery, she learned of a lab mix-up by CBL Path, and that she didn’t have breast cancer.

Eason had even sought a second opinion, but the doctor reiterated her original cancer diagnosis and urged her to have both breasts removed. Ms. Eason brought a case against the facility and settled for $2.5 million.

10. The Mark of Zorro?

medical mistakes most famous cases

Liana Gedz was going to give birth to her first child by caesarian section. Her doctor at Beth Israel Hospital was Dr. Allan Zarkin. But the day after undergoing the delivery that delivered a healthy girl, Gedz held a mirror up to her stomach in a recovery room and discovered that Dr. Zarkin had carved his initials, A. Z., into her abdomen.

”I feel like a branded animal,” Gedz said ”It was supposed to be one of the most exciting times in my life, but it was a nightmare.” Beth Israel suspended Dr. Zarkin immediately after the incident, and he later resigned. Dr. Gedz, a dentist, and her husband, Robert Ghalili, an oral surgeon, sued Beth Israel, Dr. Zarkin and New York Gyn/Ob Associates as defendants, which was settled for $1.75 million. Zarkin later pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to probation.

11. Screwdriver implanted in patient

doctor left a screwdriver inside patient (1)

Arturo Iturralde was supposed to have back surgery which involved inserting titanium surgical rods into his spine. His surgeon, Robert Ricketson, couldn’t find the rods that were supposed to be inserted. 

Instead of obtaining the proper rods or waiting to do this another time, Dr. Ricketson removed the handle from a screwdriver and inserted it into Mr. Iturralde’s back. With a few days the screwdriver makeshift rod broke. 

This caused horrible pain and a complete lack of stability of his spine. This patient underwent several back surgeries after this mess and died within two years. His estate filed a malpractice case against the surgeon and recovered $5.6 million.

Only by learning from these terrible mistakes can the medical profession improve safety. Unfortunately the state of medicine today makes it more likely that mistakes will occur. The profit motive is often forcing doctors to spend less time with patients.

The number of patients per nurse at hospitals is increasing. Less personal care results in more mistakes.  When mistakes occur, it is important to act quickly before the health care providers attempt a cover-up. 

Contact an experience medical malpractice lawyer as soon as a medical mistake happens. They can guide you through the process and help you recover for these losses.  It will also help prevent these mistakes in the future.

12. Unmarked vial costs photographer his life

In 1985 award-winning Miami Herald photographer Bob East was diagnosed with corneal cancer. His eye had to be removed. East decided to have it donated to the medical school to use for medical students to study eye cancers.

While he was having the surgery to remove his eye at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, someone involved in the removal brought a vial into the operating room with the formaldehyde-like solution used to preserve the eye for science. 

The surgeon had earlier drawn some cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the patient to be re-injected into his spine. Instead of the CSF, the formaldehyde was injected into Mr. East’s spine, rendering him brain dead. He died five days later. 

An autopsy showed the solution had turned his organs to stone. The catastrophe resulted in policy changes requiring no unmarked vials to ever be brought into an OR.