A jury recently found in favor of a plaintiff in a malpractice lawsuit, and awarded him and his wife a record-breaking $9 million in damages. The jury in the case found that the emergency room (ER) physician working for the regional hospital where the plaintiff was treated had egregiously and negligently breached the accepted standards of medical care by not ordering X-rays or a computed tomography (CT) scan of the plaintiff’s neck.
The plaintiff was a 51-year old oil field worker whose truck slid off an icy road, rolling over several times and landing upside down. Emergency medical service workers freed him from the truck, immobilized the man using a backboard, and put a neck brace on his neck to prevent further damage. He arrived at Campbell County Memorial Hospital with the neck brace on and was seen by the ER physician, who ordered X-rays and CT scans of Prager’s head, thoracic spine, and facial bones, but not of his neck, despite the patient complaining of neck pain.
The physician released patient without a cervical collar and without performing a physical exam. The patient returned to the hospital four days later with extreme pain in his left shoulder and neck, and weakness in his arm. Further tests revealed that the man had a broken neck and required emergency neck-fusion surgery. Because of the ER doctor’s failure to diagnose the broken neck, the man suffered permanent C5 nerve root injuries, had to undergo a second neck fusion, and will need additional surgeries in the future, including the implantation of a spinal cord stimulator to try to reduce his pain intensity. The man is unable to work, and is largely confined to his home by pain and disability.
He sued the hospital and ER physician. At trial, the doctor denied that he had failed to perform a physical exam; however, his own defense expert, on cross-examination, testified that if the exam had actually been performed, the patient’s obvious and intense pain would have indicated that X-rays of the neck were required. The jury found that the physician and the hospital had been negligent, and awarded the plaintiff damages in the amount of $7 million plus an additional $2 million to Prager’s wife for loss of consortium. The previous record high malpractice award in Wyoming had been $1.5 million.