Not all medical malpractice lawsuits are decided by a jury. In some circumstances – such as those in which the Defendant doctor is an employee of the federal government – a judge decides whether the physician breached the standard of care and, if so, how much money to award. This is called a “bench trial.” In a recent bench trial in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, a Federal Judge awarded the victim of a medical mistake $3.2 million. A copy of the article regarding the case can be found here.
In the Arizona case it was alleged that the Plaintiff – a board certified orthopedic surgeon with subspecialty training in spine surgery – consulted his primary care physician for a shoulder injury he sustained while lifting weights. That physician referred him for an MRI of the shoulder. It was determined that the Plaintiff would require rotator cuff surgery and so he was referred to the Defendant-doctor, an employee of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, for the procedure. The MRI also revealed what was interpreted by the Radiologist to be a soft tissue mass in the shoulder. The Defendant, however, interpreted the MRI to show type of mass that was fluid-based “containing joint debris.” The Defendant told the Plaintiff that he would remove the fluid during the rotator cuff surgery. He did not, however, discuss any other type of mass with the Plaintiff and did not seek consent to remove any other type of mass.
When he opened the Plaintiff’s shoulder, the Defendant discovered that the object on the MRI was in fact a soft tissue mass, not a fluid pseudocapsule as he had expected. The Defendant nonetheless decided to excise (remove) the mass which was later determined by the pathology department to be benign. In the course of removing the mass, the Defendant caused permanent and irreparable damage to the Plaintiff’s axillary nerve which enervates the anterior deltoid. As a result, the Plaintiff experienced significant atrophy of his anterior deltoid muscle and lost the capacity to perform instrumented spine surgery, leaving him with a significant future wage loss.
The judge awarded the Plaintiff $2,900,000 for his lost wages and $300,000 for pain and suffering, for a total damages award of $3,200,000. Although bench trials are generally not favored by medical malpractice plaintiffs, in this case it appears that the Plaintiff was adequately compensated for his losses.
At STSW, we have successfully resolved numerous cases involving negligently-performed surgeries and also have experience trying bench trials. If you or someone you know has been injured as the result of a surgical mistake, call us for a free consultation at (410) 385 – 2225.