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S.C. triple amputee wins $13.75M med-mal award

COLUMBIA, S.C. — An Aiken County jury has returned a $13.75 million verdict in favor of an Aiken woman who had to have three limbs amputated after nurses at Aiken Regional Medical Center improperly administered drugs that can reduce the flow of blood to a patient’s limbs.

Seletha Gartrell, 54, went to Aiken Regional’s emergency room in December 2012 with the flu and signs and symptoms of sepsis. Her attorneys, Chad McGowan and Johnny Felder of McGowan Hood & Felder in Columbia, alleged that nurses at Aiken Regional gave Gartrell a battery of drugs, including two vasopressors, a class of drugs that are administered when a patient’s blood pressure has dropped too low and raise that blood pressure by constricting the patient’s blood vessels.

While vasopressors can be useful in certain cases, they can also be extremely dangerous if administered improperly and can cause ischemia, a cutting off of essential blood supply to the patient’s extremities. Felder said that nurses working the night shift at Aiken Regional began administering vasopressors too early and failed to notify doctors that Gartrell was exhibiting a number of symptoms that are known to be indicators of limb ischemia.

“These vasopressor drugs, they are dangerous when you have a patient with low blood flow volume, so you try to give them as little as possible, for as short a time as possible,” Felder said. “We were able to empirically show from a chart that they were giving these drugs where it was not medically necessary. At the same time, we showed what was going on with her body. We literally mapped it all out for the jury where you could see, as they were clamping down on these vasopressors, what was happening to her skin.”

After a week in the intensive care unit, Gartrell was transported to the Medical University of South Carolina for further treatment, where doctors there decided they had no choice but to amputate both of her legs above the knee, her left arm below the elbow, and the tips of her fingers on her right hand. Doctors at MUSC testified in depositions that the use of vasopressors contributed to the ischemia that necessitated the amputations.

Gartrell’s lawsuit alleged the nurses at Aiken Regional did not follow their doctors’ orders for administering the vasopressor drugs, did not administer the drugs in the proper amounts and doses, and failed to follow hospital policy and procedure by failing to notify the treating doctor about the signs of ischemia. Gartrell settled with all of the attending doctors before trial, and the individual nurses were dismissed from the case, so Aiken Regional was the only defendant at trial.

On March 1, the jury agreed, returning a verdict finding the nurses’ conduct to be grossly negligent and reckless. The jury’s verdict awarded $10 million in economic damages and $3.75 million in non-economic damages, but did not include an award of punitive damages.

Felder said that, prior to her injuries, Gartrell was working full time in Aiken, active in the community and her church, and the primary caretaker for several family members.

“Fortunately, the jury was able to see the overwhelming evidence of nursing conduct that fell below the standard of care. The jury’s verdict is not only reasonable, considering the nature and extent of harm in this case the verdict is actually somewhat conservative,” Felder said. “The injuries caused at the hospital have devastated Mrs. Gartrell and her family. Hopefully this verdict will force the hospital to take a close look at how certain things are done and monitored in their emergency room and ICU units.”

Thomas Burnside of Augusta, Georgia, also represented Gartrell, while Joe Farchione and Lamar Jost of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell in Denver, Colorado and Barbara Chesley of Richardson Plowden in Columbia represented Aiken Regional.

In an email, Farchione said that “Mrs. Gartrell is an inspirational human being as are the individual nurses who cared for her and saved her life. Mrs. Gartrell had two life threatening infections, one viral which caused her to have a cardiac arrest soon after arrival and the other was bacterial MRSA infection of both lungs. I respect the jury system, but vehemently disagree with their finding. The care provided by the Aiken Regional Medical Center staff prevented the infections from killing her, but the loss of the limbs could not be avoided.”

Gartrell’s demand was $10 million, and the hospital’s highest offer was $1 million, Felder said.

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