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MS COLLINS is an attorney specializing in medical malpractice in Long Beach, California. She welcomes feedback on this column via e-mail. Click on the envelope icon to email.
Allegations in this case include extended use of oxytocin and allowing labor to continue too long.
A 35-year-old woman was admitted to the hospital in labor at 41 weeks gestation. Nine hours later she was examined by her obstetrician who noted she was 8 cm dilated and -1 station. Three hours later an artificial rupture of membranes was performed, and 2 hours later an examination revealed no change in her cervix. The obstetrician reviewed the options, including epidural and a cesarean. It was decided that an intrauterine pressure catheter (IUPC) would be inserted and oxytocin augmentation started. Four hours later the patient was completely dilated and the head was at +1 station. An hour later she began pushing, and 2 ½ hours later the obstetrician noted no further progression and recommended a cesarean, but the patient wanted to push longer. An hour later no progress had been made and a cesarean was performed for delivery of a 9 1/2 lb infant. The uterus was closed with good homeostasis noted; however, uterine atony persisted which did not respond to multiple doses of medications or uterine massage, and hemorrhaging continued. Sutures were unsuccessful and the obstetrician called for assistance from another obstetrician. They performed ligation of the utero-ovarian ligaments, further suturing, and ovarian-artery ligation, which did not stop the hemorrhaging. The decision was made to proceed to hysterectomy. During the procedure, the left ovary tore and was removed. Following the hysterectomy, the patient recovered fully.
The patient and her husband sued the obstetrician, her practice, and the hospital involved with the delivery. They alleged the obstetrician was negligent in allowing the labor to continue too long, using oxytocin for an extended period, allowing the patient to push for several hours, and that she should have realized the infant was too large to deliver vaginally. The expert witness opined that stimulation of contractions for so many hours without progress created an unacceptably high risk of uterine atony and led to a non-reversible atonic state after delivery, causing the patient to lose her uterus and, thus, the ability to carry another pregnancy. At trial the patient and her husband talked about their intentions to have additional children and discussed how difficult it was that their only child would grow up without a sibling.
The obstetrician denied that she was negligent, and her expert witness testified that postpartum hemorrhage is a serious but frequently unavoidable complication of childbirth, and although the patient had an unfortunate outcome, the obstetrician met the standard of care in the management of her labor and delivery. According to the expert, the obstetrician was attentive, was present at appropriate intervals throughout labor, and there was no point where a different decision should have been made. The expert maintained that the obstetrician allowed the patient to have input in the decisions as to how her labor was managed, which is appropriate as long as the physician is comfortable that it is not compromising the safety of the mother or baby. The length of labor and the fact that the baby was large did increase the risk of postpartum uterine atony; however, in most cases this does not occur, and it can occur without these risk factors. The expert concluded that management of the complication was appropriate and prevented potentially life-threatening bleeding.
THE VERDICT: The jury returned a defense verdict.
In obstetric malpractice cases involving hemorrhage as a complication after delivery, the usual issues in the case are risk of the complication, informed consent, and, of course, recognition and management of the complication. While hemorrhage is always a risk in any delivery, some specific situations would require informing the patient of an increased risk, but most postpartum hemorrhages (PPH) are not predictable prior to labor and delivery. When it happens, however, it may become the subject of a medical malpractice lawsuit. Avoiding some of the common errors in management of PPH, as described in the article on hemorrhage in the March issue (“How to prepare for postpartum hemorrhage") and providing complete documentation of measures taken in managing this life-threatening complication can certainly aid in defending these cases.
In 2013, a 73-year-old woman underwent laparoscopic surgery to address pelvic pain. The procedure involved lysis of adhesions of soft tissue and removal of a fibroid mass and was performed by her gynecologist. The day following surgery the patient developed septic shock and it was determined this was a result of 2 perforations of the small intestine. She underwent 9 operations that involved removal of fluid that accumulated in her abdomen and applications of 2 skin grafts that covered her abdominal surgical wounds. She was hospitalized for 84 days and underwent 47 nonsurgical procedures during her convalescence. Two years later she underwent surgical repair of a large ventral hernia which she claimed was a result of the original perforations. She claimed she suffered from residual disfigurement of her abdomen, that she had diminished ambulatory ability, and her limitations had necessitated hiring workers to maintain the properties she owned as a landlord.
The patient sued all those involved with the original operation and her postsurgical care. She claimed the perforations occurred during the laparoscopy, they were not recognized in a timely manner, and that the delay led to all the complications and further surgeries. The plaintiff’s counsel discontinued the claims against the 3 postsurgical gynecologists and the doctors’ employer. The trial proceeded against the remaining defendants, arguing that timely intervention would have prevented the patient’s sepsis and its residual effects. They also contended that laparoscopic surgery was unnecessary, claiming the patient’s age and comorbidities contraindicated performance of the surgery, and that the procedure was not a reliable means of addressing the pain that she was experiencing.
Defense counsel contended that the surgery was an appropriate means of addressing the patient’s underlying condition. They also claimed that her perforations developed after the surgery had been completed, and they contended that the perforations were timely detected. After deliberating for 2 hours at the conclusion of an 8-day trial, the jury rendered a mixed verdict: it determined that the resident did not fail to timely diagnose the complications of the laparoscopic surgery, that the surgery was an appropriate means of addressing her underlying condition, and that the 2 treating gynecologists did fail to timely diagnose the operative complications.
THE VERDICT: The jury found that the patient’s damages totaled $1,234,298.28.
A 43-year-old woman underwent a hysterectomy, performed by her gynecologist. She had a history of multiple sclerosis but was in remission at the time of the operation. The woman sued the gynecologist claiming that during the procedure he injured her ureter and this required additional surgery which she claimed caused permanent incontinence. Had the gynecologist performed the initial operation properly, she alleged the second operation would not have been necessary and would not have caused the permanent injury.
The gynecologist denied any error during the hysterectomy and argued that kinking caused the need for the second operation, and the resulting incontinence was due to the pre-existing multiple sclerosis.
THE VERDICT: After deliberating 2 hours at the conclusion of a 4-day trial, a $700,000 verdict was returned. This award included $500,000 economic damages, and $200,000 non-economic damages.