A West Virginia woman and her husband were recently awarded the maximum amount allowed by the state for medical malpractice cases by Federal Judge Irene Berger. The amount, which totals $672,681.67, was in response to Sara Lambert Smith’s lawsuit brought against the United States upon undergoing an unnecessary hysterectomy after the birth of her first child in 2013. She was just 24-years-old at the time. The suit was filed against the U.S. because the doctor who performed the surgery, Dr. Ray Wolfe, is an employee of the federally-funded Access Health Associates clinic in the city of Beckley.
Smith returned to the hospital five days after giving birth to her first, and last, biological child because she was experiencing heavy bleeding from her vagina, though her baby was delivered via C-section. When she arrived, she was admitted to the emergency room, where several tests were administered to determine the cause; her blood tests indicated she had an elevated white blood cell count and possible remnants of products of conception (POC), but her vital signs were normal.
When Wolfe first examined Smith, an hour and a half after she was first admitted, he ordered a dilation and curettage, or D&C, in addition to scheduling her for a possible hysterectomy in order to stop the bleeding. Despite telling Wolfe she intended to have more children, she gave written consent for the D&C and potential hysterectomy under the assumption the latter would not be required. When the bleeding did not stop after the first procedure, Wolfe proceeded to perform the hysterectomy without attempting to exercise a number of other options that could have protected and secured Smith’s future fertility.
At the conclusion of the two day bench trial, Judge Berger ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, writing, in part, “Having carefully considered the damages suffered by the Plaintiffs, and in light of both the Court’s experience with jury verdicts in state and federal medical malpractice cases and a review of similar cases, the Court finds that Ms. Smith has suffered damages in excess of the statutory cap,” adding, “The Court finds that Dr. Wolfe’s failure to attempt alternative treatments prior to performing a hysterectomy, on a twenty-four-year-old patient with stable vital signs and no evidence of hemodynamic instability, constitutes a reckless disregard to a risk of harm to the patient. Therefore, there is no limitation on economic damages.”
Other such options, as noted by the judge, included “uterine massage, additional uteronics (which promote contraction in different ways), balloon tamponade, open uterine massage, bilateral O’Leary stitches, bilateral hypogastric ligation, B-Lynch sutures, hemostatic multiple square suturing, or transfer [to Charleston Area Medical Center hospital] for uterine artery embolization. These procedures would not have taken more than a few minutes each. Some would have taken only seconds to perform.”
It was deemed likely Smith would have had a greater than 25 percent chance of keeping her uterus and subsequent fertility had Wolfe followed standard procedures of care; instead, she was left to deal with overwhelming emotional pain, early menopause, extreme hormonal changes, and undue marital strain.
Medical malpractice lawsuits are notoriously hard to win due to the laws in place that protect healthcare providers and institutions, and such cases filed in federal courts are decided by judges rather than juries. West Virginia’s Medical Malpractice Liability Act (MMLA) requires plaintiffs to prove medical professionals failed to act in accordance with a minimum standard of care and that their injuries were sustained as a result, thus placing them in further potential harm or preventing them from a full recovery.