Every year, hundreds of thousands of individuals trust healthcare professionals with their lives, expecting, at the very least, competent care. When this trust is breached due to negligence, the consequences can be catastrophic, leading to medical malpractice lawsuits that often make headlines.
This blog post explores the five most famous medical malpractice lawsuits, offering insights into the complexities of these cases and their impact on the medical and legal fields.
1. Libby Zion’s tragic death: the day medicine changed forever
In March 1984, 18-year-old college freshman Libby Zion was admitted to New York Hospital with a high fever and unexplained movements. Treated by residents, she was given meperidine, an opiate, and later, when she became agitated, she was physically restrained and administered haloperidol. Tragically, Libby’s condition worsened, culminating in cardiac arrest and eventually death.
Libby’s parents, Sidney and Elsa, hired an attorney to conduct an investigation. The investigation found that the residents who treated Libby were overworked, often pulling 36-hour shifts with minimal supervision. The investigation further found that the attending physician never even physically examined Libby.
The medical malpractice case, which went to trial in 1994, ultimately assigned equal blame to New York Hospital and Libby Zion for supposedly concealing her past use of cocaine. But the case’s real legacy was the subsequent grand jury investigation and state commission, the Bell Commission, which recommended significant changes to resident work hours and supervision. In 2003, these recommendations were made mandatory by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, capping work hours at 80 per week and shifts at no more than 24 hours, and calling for enhanced supervision of residents.
2. Julie Andrews’ lost voice: a career-altering surgery
World-renowned actress and singer Julie Andrews, perhaps best known for her roles in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, underwent surgery in 1997 at Mt. Sinai Hospital to remove noncancerous nodules from her throat. Tragically, the surgery led to permanent damage to her vocal cords, effectively ending her singing career.
Julie filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctors involved, alleging that the operation was botched, leaving her with hoarseness, permanent vocal damage, and other complications. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2000.
“Singing has been a cherished gift, and my inability to sing has been a devastating blow,” Andrews said at the time.
3. The Michael Jackson case: a doctor’s negligence
The death of pop icon Michael Jackson in 2009 brought worldwide attention to the issue of medical negligence. Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for administering a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol.
Dr. Murray, a cardiologist based in Houston, received a monthly payment of $150,000 for his role as Michael Jackson's personal doctor during the rehearsals in Los Angeles for the "This Is It" concert series.
During the criminal trial, it was revealed that Dr. Murray spent at least six nights a week with Jackson and was frequently implored by the singer, who suffered from chronic insomnia, to administer sleep-inducing medications. Jackson specifically sought propofol, a potent surgical anesthetic, which he preferred over other strong sedatives. Evidence presented in court suggested that it was propofol, combined with other medications in Jackson's system, that was primarily responsible for his death on June 25, 2009.
Surviving members of Michael Jackson’s family filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against concert promoter AEG Live. They alleged that AEG Live was negligent in hiring Dr. Murray and should be held responsible for Jackson's death. The family argued that AEG Live pressured Dr. Murray to prioritize Jackson's ability to perform over his health and well-being.
The trial, which took place in 2013, lasted for several months and included extensive testimonies and evidence. Ultimately, the jury found that while AEG Live did hire Dr. Murray, he was not unfit or incompetent for the work for which he was hired, absolving the company of liability in Jackson's death.
Learn the differences and similarities between criminal and civil law.
4. Take care of Maya: Maya Kowalski’s wrongful death lawsuit
In a landmark verdict, a Florida jury awarded $261 million in damages to the Kowalski family against Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
The case, which gained attention through the Netflix documentary "Take Care of Maya," revolved around the hospital's treatment of Maya Kowalski, a 10-year-old treated for complex regional pain syndrome in 2016.
During her three-month stay at the hospital, Maya was separated from her parents, Jack and Beata Kowalski, due to suspicions of child abuse. This separation and the hospital's treatment methods led to a deterioration in Maya's condition. Tragically, in 2017, Beata Kowalski, who had been accused of abusing her daughter and was restricted from seeing her, died by suicide.
The jury found the hospital liable for false imprisonment, battery, medical negligence, and other charges, resulting in emotional distress for Maya and her mother. The hospital, adhering to state orders and suspecting child abuse, had isolated Maya and placed her under video surveillance, which the family's complaint described as worsening her symptoms. Despite the hospital's defense that they were following mandatory reporting obligations for suspected child abuse and carrying out state orders, the jury's decision was seen as a vindication for the family.
5. Donda West: the botched cosmetic surgery case
Donda West, the mother of rapper Kanye West, passed away in 2007 following cosmetic surgery, leading to a high-profile medical malpractice case.
Dr. Jan Adams performed a tummy tuck and breast reduction surgery on Donda West. She died the next day due to complications related to the surgery.
The autopsy report indicated that Donda West died from "coronary artery disease and multiple post-operative factors due to or as a consequence of liposuction and mammoplasty." The case brought significant attention to the risks associated with cosmetic surgery, especially regarding pre-existing health conditions.
Dr. Adams was heavily scrutinized for his post-operative care practices. Notably, Dr. Adams had numerous convictions for alcohol-related offenses and at least two major malpractice settlements.
Do you have a medical malpractice case?
Medical malpractice occurs when a patient is harmed because a health care professional deviates from the accepted standard of care.
A medical malpractice claim can be brought against any licensed health care professional.
Examples of actions (or inactions) that commonly result in medical malpractice claims include:
- Failing to diagnose an illness
- Misdiagnosing an illness
- Misreading a lab result
- Prematurely discharging a patient
- Failing to follow proper medical procedure
- Failing to warn a patient of known risks
- Prescribing an improper medication or dosage
In order to establish a medical malpractice claim in most states, a patient must prove the following elements:
- The health care provider failed to exercise the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable health care provider in the profession, and
- Such failure was the actual and proximate cause of the patient’s injury.
In a medical malpractice case, the focus of the lawsuit is generally on what the health care provider should have done in a specific set of circumstances. The standard by which the health care professional is judged is called the “medical standard of care.”
To put it another way, the plaintiff attempts to persuade the judge or jury that the health care professional failed to act with the same level of care that an ordinary health care professional with the same training and experience would have, and the defendant attempts to persuade the judge that the health care professional acted competently. Both sides can—and are typically required to—present expert testimony to support their arguments.