A jury awarded a Florida teenager $12.6 million in a medical malpractice lawsuit against the University of Miami Medical School for a medication error that caused her to lose all four of her limbs 13 years ago when she was a toddler.

The jury deemed the mother half responsible for the error, the mother will ultimately receive about half the award. All commentators think the medical school will appeal first, though.

Queen Seriah Azulla Dabrio gave birth to her daughter Shaniah on August 16, 1996. The infant had many medical conditions and physical conditions, according to court documents, including a life-threatening gastric perforation. Doctors had to perform surgery the day after her birth at Memorial Regional Hospital. After an extended stay at the hospital, she was discharged, under the care of a number of pediatricians and gastroenterologists. The doctors removed her spleen and other organs.

On June 11, 1999, Dabrio brought her dying three-year-old to the emergency room at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The ER doctors diagnosed her with “multiple virulent conditions, including ischemia … which stopped the flow of blood to her extremities, and gangrene,” court documents show. “After consultation with Shaniah’s mother, a team of Jackson physicians conducted a four-extremity amputation on the young girl — removing both arms below the elbow and both of her legs below her knees.”

In October of 1998, a few months prior to visiting the emergency room, a medical assistant had given the child a special vaccine for people without spleens, to inoculate against bacterial infections. The vaccine was expired, and the child came down with an infection.

Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice attorney Manuel Dobrinsky echoes the jury’s finding that the consumer has the first responsibility to avoid medical error. “Consumers need to really watch out for themselves before malpractice occurs before it’s too late.”

“Let’s say, if you go to the lab to get a blood test – some people think that if they don’t get a phone call, then everything is alright. No, insist that somebody tell you it’s okay, and not only tell you but also give you the values. If you think there’s something wrong with you and the doctor says there’s nothing wrong, get a second opinion. If you’re in the hospital, be sure there are people asking questions: ‘What are you doing? What medicine are you giving?’” he says.

Unfortunately, medical malpractice is not uncommon. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, hospitals and doctors get it right, but there are instances when they get it wrong,” he says, adding that the University of Miami is a top hospital. But he sees mistakes all the time: misdiagnoses, dosage errors, and everything in between.

“The wrong drug can be given that causes death, or there’d be too much of a drug or too little, anything you can imagine we have seen. So it’s very important that consumers be proactive,” he says. “Truthfully, a lawsuit is your last recourse. It’s the last resort. We never have clients say, ‘Wow, this lawsuit is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’”

Medical Malpractice Awards

He says Shaniah Rolle got a huge award because she lost so much. “She’ll probably need 24-hour care,” he says. The jury probably took her long-term care into account when they set the award. Dobrinsky says the jury will take into account all the economic losses in a medical malpractice case. “The first thing you have to talk about is the economic damages – loss of ability to work and the care this person’s going to need. Top-end prosthetic limbs are very expensive, and the question is, who should pay for them? The wrongdoer or the taxpayer?” In other words, if the hospital wasn’t forced to pay damages, the girl would be supported by public benefits.

“The other question is pain and suffering – loss of enjoyment of life. I can guess that with a person who’s lost all their limbs, there are a lot of things you can’t do,” he says. Damages for pain and suffering were capped in 2003, however.

He says an appeal is standard practice for large awards like this case.

If a consumer feels he/she has been a victim of medical malpractice, consultations are almost always free, and lawyers typically don’t get paid unless the client wins an award. And as with doctors, if a lawyer doesn’t think there’s a case, get a second opinion.

By Ada Kulesza

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