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Laurel v. Prince – Physical Injury Necessary in Alabama Medical Malpractice Claim

Apr 15, 2014 - Medical Malpractice by

In filing a medical malpractice lawsuit in Birmingham, it’s not enough for the plaintiff to show the defendant erred. He or she must prove that the error caused a compensable degree of harm.
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That could be in the form of additional medical expenses incurred as a result of the error. It could be in the form of lost wages, due to the fact that the error rendered you unable to work for a time. It could be physical pain, permanent scarring or impairment.

Absent proof of physical harm, though, a medical mistake may not be worth a lawsuit, as the case of Laurel v. Prince, recently reviewed by the Alabama Supreme Court, demonstrates.

In the Laurel case, there was no question that the medical team made a potentially grave error. According to court records, the patient/plaintiff arrived at the surgical center in Madison to have her gallbladder removed.

As she was prepared for surgery, she was given a series of anesthetics. At one point, a nurse on the medical staff administered what she believed to be Zofran, an anti-nausea medication, which was in a syringe that was on the table with a white label and a handwritten latter “Z” on it. The medication had been drawn into the syringe by the anesthesiologist.

The patient was being moved onto a stretcher when she suddenly reported trouble breathing and exceeding weakness. The anesthesiologist was called and the patient was given oxygen. Another anesthesiologist came to assist, and provided the patient with another type of medicine.

It was later determined that the syringe with the “Z” was actually a drug called Zemuron, which is a type of paralytic. Further, it was a medication that was intended for a previous patient. In a serious mix-up, the same syringe used on the gallbladder patient had been used on the previous patient.

Over the course of the next year, the gallbladder patient had to undergo routine testing for both HIV and hepatitis C, which are known to be passed easily through needles. This was done as a preemptive measure, even though the first patient hadn’t tested positive for either of those conditions. The gallbladder patient was not required to pay for those tests, which all came back negative.

Later, she sued the anesthesiologist, the nurse and the medical center, alleging medical malpractice. The defendants all filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. The court also later denied their motions for reconsideration.

The Alabama Supreme Court granted review. The primary question here was whether Alabama law allows for recovery for fear of an injury that never occurred and for which medical expert testimony indicates there is no risk of now occurring.

So here the issue is not whether the health care provider breached the standard of care. Unquestionably, they did. But is that enough grounds on which to bring a claim?

The state supreme court says no.

While the plaintiff alleges extreme mental anguish, embarrassment and other injuries as a result of the testing, plus exposure to unknown pathogens, the court determined this isn’t enough of a basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit in Alabama.

The absence of physical injury, the court found, was grounds for a summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Additional Resources:

Laurel v. Prince, April 11, 2014, Alabama Supreme Court

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