Patients can sue a hospital for getting sepsis while in the care of that facility. Sepsis is the cause of 1 in 5 deaths worldwide, according to a 2020 report from the World Health Organization. Many of those cases are caused by infections caught in a hospital setting. How does one catch sepsis in a setting that is supposed to be healing the body, and when are those hospital settings liable for causing distress from sepsis?
What Is Sepsis?
Sepsis is the body’s immune response to an infection or injury to the body. Most of the time, sepsis is caused by bacterial infections, though it can sometimes be viral. A body normally releases chemical immune mediators into the blood to combat an infection. If those mediators go unchecked, they can trigger widespread inflammation, blood clots, and leaky blood vessels. Once blood flow is impaired, it can deprive the organs of both nutrients and oxygen, which leads to organ damage.
Although anyone can develop sepsis, infants, children, older adults, and people who have underlying medical conditions, have just had surgery, or are taking certain medications are most at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least 1.7 million adults in the United States develop sepsis, and nearly 270,000 die from sepsis a year. According to the World Health Organization’s first global report on sepsis, published in 2020, almost 49 million cases of sepsis worldwide each year occur among children, resulting in 2.9 million deaths. Many of these could be prevented by early diagnosis or early clinical management.
That same report found that sepsis frequently results from infections acquired in health care settings. About 49% of patients with sepsis in intensive care units acquired the infection in the hospital, and an estimated 27% of people with sepsis in hospitals and 42% of people in intensive care units will die.
Some of the symptoms of sepsis include fever, chills, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, rash, confusion and disorientation, abdominal pain, respiratory distress, and arrhythmia. However, since these are also symptoms of other conditions, it’s often challenging to recognize sepsis in its early stages.
Sepsis After Surgery
Healthcare-associated infections, or HAIs, are common complications in hospitals. Around one out of every 25 patients, each year develops HAI, with many of those infections progressing into sepsis. According to the CDC, 1 in 3 patients who dies in a hospital has sepsis.
Sepsis occurs most commonly after surgery among patients with compromised immune systems, patients with chronic health conditions, and the elderly.
Pneumonia, which could require a ventilator for assistance, is not uncommon after having surgery, which is why post-operative patients are encouraged to get up and start walking quickly after surgery.
Some of the most common causes of sepsis in hospitals include:
- Central lines, which are inserted into major veins and kept in for longer durations
- Urinary catheters, which can cause catheter-associated urinary tract infection
- Surgical site infections, meaning bacteria have entered the body either during surgery or from a wound that was not properly cleaned or covered.
- Ventilator-associated pneumonia, as ventilator tubes could provide an avenue for bacteria to travel into the lungs
Bedsores, which commonly occur when someone is bedridden for long periods of time without movement, are another source of sepsis for those who have been recently hospitalized or in a long-term care facility.
In addition, it’s important to monitor any incisions, as that’s another area that could be infected with bacteria. Signs of infection at the wound site include increasing redness around the incision, pus or fluid coming from the incision, warmer than usual skin around the incision, increased pain around the incision, fever, and fatigue.
If sepsis isn’t caught early enough, the patient can go into septic shock and experience organ failure or death.
In addition to the health risk itself from sepsis, there can be long-lasting effects of sepsis. For instance, the degradation of muscle function from lack of movement over a long period of time makes it difficult for patients to care for themselves as they rebuild strength. Because of the long-term implications of hospital infection, a victim might seek to recover damages by contacting a Reno medical malpractice lawyer.
What Is Neonatal Sepsis?
Newborns are also susceptible to neonatal sepsis through the introduction of bacteria in their bloodstream through either horizontal or vertical transmission. Vertical transmission happens when a maternal infection spreads to the baby shortly before or during the birth process. The risk of vertical transmission is higher when the membrane is prematurely ruptured or there is an infection of the placenta or fetal membrane. The risk of vertical transmission is also higher if the baby is born prematurely, the doctor uses forceps during birth, or the hospital uses electrodes for intrauterine monitoring during labor. Horizontal transmission happens after birth, through contact with either caregiver, medical personnel, or environmental contaminants.
Infant symptoms are slightly different and include an Apgar score of 6 or lower, temperature control issues, respiratory issues, low blood pressure, jaundice, and vomiting.
When Is The Hospital Liable for Sepsis?
There are generally three risk factors for getting sepsis in a hospital.
- Patient risk factors include the length of stay in the hospital, the severity of the illness or injury for which the patient was admitted to the hospital, and the capacity of the patient’s immune system.
- Organizational risk factors, depending on the hospital’s cleanliness, include filtration of HVAC systems, the concentration of patient beds, cleanliness of the water systems, and sterility of medical devices.
- Iatrogenic risk factors depend on the care that the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff take to remain sterile and clean, including the washing of hands, the use of antibiotics, and not causing errors.
If a patient has gotten sepsis while hospitalized, the hospital would be liable if the root cause of the sepsis was neglect. Some examples of neglect include:
- Improper post-operative care, which can include failure to clean wounds
- Improper handwashing by medical personnel
- Improperly sanitized medical equipment or failure to use them properly sterilized tools
- Poor care for wounds or bedsores
- Failure of medical staff to wear gloves and other PPE
- Improper insertion of IVs or other medical equipment
- Failure to properly monitor patients
- Errors regarding patient charts and health records
Sometimes, it’s the equipment itself that causes the infection because of a lack of quality control. One area for which this can be problematic is implants. In fact, Zimmer Biomet, INC. recalled spinal fusion and long bone stimulators “due to a lack of adequate validation and controls to ensure that final products were clean and free from bacteria and chemical residue.” A products liability claim can be filed against the manufacturer of a defective medical device that causes an infection that leads to sepsis.
Filing a claim against a hospital, however, gets complicated. Although the hospital is responsible for the training and actions of the medical professionals they employ, doctors might actually be independent contractors, and therefore, the hospital wouldn’t be responsible for their actions. This is why it’s important to know when to get legal help so victims can recover damages for their injuries from sepsis.
There are several parties that could be held liable for sepsis injuries and deaths. In some cases, this includes the medical facility itself if conditions at the facility contributed to the infection that led to sepsis. The facility could also be liable if it was facility staff that failed to diagnose or treat the infection in a timeline manner.
If the medical professional was not an employee of the facility, that physician, nurse, anesthesiologist or other medical professional could be liable as an independent contractor, if it was his or her negligent acts that caused the worsening of sepsis.
A contracting agency might be held liable for sepsis injuries if its workers were negligent in providing services, which led to sepsis developing or worsening. A cleaning company that failed to properly clean and sanitize the hospital room would be an example of a contracting agency that could be held liable for the sepsis infection.
Proving Medical Malpractice Led To Sepsis
In order for a patient to prove neglect in a medical malpractice claim, the patient needs to prove four elements, which include:
- The patient was owed duty of care by the doctors
- The doctors’ negligent actions violated that care
- Harm or injuries were the result of that violation
- The patient sustained damages from those injuries or harms
Determining liability for injuries or death resulting from sepsis requires an investigation into the circumstances of how the infection was acquired, the reason it was not promptly treated, and whether or not it could or should have been prevented. Doctors can diagnose sepsis through blood, stool or wound swab tests.
If a victim of sepsis in a hospital setting has encountered one of these situations, they should contact a Reno sepsis attorney:
- Delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis
- Worsening condition because of a medical error
- Second opinion that contradicts original diagnosis
- Ignored concerned
- Child harmed during birth
An attorney has extensive knowledge about medical malpractice—as well as the evidence needed to prove a claim of medical error–and can help the victim decide if he or she should file a claim against either the hospital or the individual medical provider.
Oftentimes, an outside medical expert will be brought in to establish that avoidable errors were made during the victim’s treatment. For instance, did the medical professional take blood samples to check for bacteria and administer antibiotics and IV fluids? If not, this error could have lead to the bacteria turning into sepsis.
How Are Victims Compensated?
If an attorney is able to prove negligence of a medical professional in a sepsis case, there are two types of damages, which is the civil court’s attempt to answer what the injured patient has lost. The two main types of damages in a medical malpractice case for sepsis are economic and non-economic.
Economic damages are a calculation that tries to compensate the victim for lost income and lost earning capacity, the cost of medical treatment from the neglect and other financial losses due to the medical error. These are calculated to not just include the amount of current earnings a victim has lost but also what they might stand to lose in the future if they’re still unable to work.
This calculation is based on the “present value” of the loss or earnings or earning capacity. Usually the victim’s earnings multiplied by however long the victim might be unable to work. If a victim is unemployed at the time of the injury, the earnings from the previous job may be able to be used as the earning capacity. If a victim is self-employed, the victim’s business records and tax returns can usually be used to support the lost earnings claim.
Non-economic damages involve being compensated for both pain and suffering and loss of consortium. Pain and suffering compensates a victim for the physical pain and discomfort they feel and for the mental and emotional effects of the harm from sepsis. Examples of physical pain include sensory manifestations—or pain—but also scarring and disfigurement caused by the sepsis. Mental pain and suffering includes emotional distress, anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, fear, anxiety, sleep issues, or other non-physical manifestations of the medical negligence.
Loss of consortium refers to the intangible benefits that the victim provided to a spouse or partner and, depending on the state, their children. An insurance policy might include a “single injury” limitation, meaning there is a cap on the amount covered by the insurance company per incident, and therefore, a loss of consortium claim might be treated separately for the purposes of the insurance policy.
There is no one way to calculate the pain and suffering. The amount of damages for pain and suffering is up to the sound discretion of the jury. Juries are given guidance on how to calculate damages for pain and suffering. The amount awarded by juries varries vastly depending on the case’s unique circumstances. Numerous factors can impact the jury’s decision regarding the victim’s pain and suffering, including:
- Whether the health care provider’s liability and the victim’s injuries from sepsis were easy for a jury to understand
- Whether the victim’s testimony remained consistent
- Whether the jury was able to follow the testimony of the medical expert to explain what happened and why it happened
Nevada has passed a law that limit the amount of non-economic damages that a victim can be awarded in a medical malpractice lawsuit to $350,000.00. The caps vary from state to state.