A jury just came back. A fireman and his wife were awarded $7.6 million dollars in a medical malpractice lawsuit alleging a physician misdiagnosed a bacterial infection as an ankle sprain. The fireman alleged the misdiagnosis resulted in an eventual amputation of the lower portion of his leg. Until recently, there was a cap on non-economic damages in Florida. However, recently, the Florida Supreme Court threw out that cap as unconstitutional such that this $7.6 million verdict will probably stand.
Almost seven years ago (these cases are around forever) the fireman’s leg began to have a blue discoloration, then developed blisters with pain. The treating ambulatory care physician diagnosed an ankle sprain and discharged the patient with crutches and instructions to ice and elevate. Just one day later the patient was diagnosed with a necrotizing bacterial infection requiring aggressive treatment with antibiotics and removal of dead tissue.
The jury determined just the one-day delay in diagnosis allowed the aggressive bacterial organisms to infiltrate deep into the fireman’s leg requiring an amputation. It is important to note, necrotizing fasciitis is considered a rare bacterial infection but does spread rapidly and can cause death. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends immediate diagnosis, antibiotic treatment, and surgery. These standards were used against the physician at trial.
It is estimated 12 million people each year in the United States suffered adverse effects from diagnostic errors and 40,000 to 80,00 people die each year from complications related to diagnostic mistakes.
The most notable aspect of the fireman case, aside from the rare, flesh-eating bacteria part, was the speed with which the misdiagnosis and subsequent injuries developed. Within three days of exposure, the fireman developed symptoms, was misdiagnosed and treated, but it was too late. This case is a sordid reminder of how quickly diagnostic errors can result in irreversible damage and then malpractice claims.