LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A jury has awarded $10.5 million to a woman who had to have her leg amputated after University of Louisville Hospital personnel left a sponge inside her during heart surgery years earlier.
The verdict included $1 million in punitive damages and about $8 million for pain and suffering for Carolyn Boerste, who was 54 when she underwent bypass surgery in 2011 and nurses left an 18-by-18-inch sponge inside her.
James “Bo” Bolus and Nick Mudd, who represented Boerste, called the case a “tragedy of errors” by five medical providers.
In an email, Bolus said the verdict “restores some sense of dignity” to Boerste and sends a message to hospitals to carefully count the number of sponges, needles and other sharp objects to ensure they are removed after surgery. He said U of L Hospital is already revamping its policy.
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David McArthur, a spokesman for U of L Health, said it will appeal. In a statement, he also said: "Safety is always a top priority and, in the eight years since this case began, we have continually enhanced our processes and continue to look for additional opportunities for improvement.”
The verdict was returned Dec. 13 after a two-week trial before Jefferson Circuit Judge Mitch Perry.
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Sponge was inserted in 2011
On March 10, 2011, Boerste underwent bypass surgery. Dr. Marvin Morris, a vascular surgeon, inadvertently transected a renal vein, causing a “bloody mess” and a crisis, according to a case summary Bolus prepared.
The incident occurred just before lunch, and a nurse testified that nurses did not do a “lunch sponge count” required by hospital policy. Nurses viewed the policy as a “mere guideline,” Bolus said in the summary.
The surgery successfully improved blood flow to the legs of Boerste, who was a diabetic.
Four years later, however, the sponge eroded into her intestine, causing gastrointestinal problems. She went by ambulance to Baptist East in Louisville, where emergency room Dr. Mark Nunley ordered a CT scan that revealed a marker for the sponge.
A radiologist called Nunley about the discovery, but he didn’t tell Boerste and discharged her a few hours later, saying she had a urinary tract infection, according to Bolus’ summary. Nunley later testified that he had no memory of the call from the radiologist.
The hospital faxed the scan report to Boerste’s family physician, Dr. Kim Brumleve, at Family Health Centers, a federally subsidized clinic for low-income patients. She initialed that she read it but she also didn’t tell Boerste, saying she thought Nunley had done so, according to Bolus.
The sponge stayed inside Boerste for 20 more months, snaking through her intestine.
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In November 2016, she returned by ambulance to Baptist East in even more pain, with the sponge blocking her intestine. One of Nunley’s partners ordered another CT, which again revealed the sponge. This time, that information was shared with Boerste, according to Bolus, and the sponge was removed through a laparotomy to her abdomen.
During her recovery at Franciscan Health Care Center, Boerste developed a blister on her heel that she alleged was caused because the facility was short-staffed and didn’t have two aides to lift her with a bed sheet, as required by the standard of care.
Despite two procedures on her left leg, it could not be saved and was amputated below the knee in July 2017.
For years, hospital claimed sponge was from 1988 operation
U of L Hospital, which for three years claimed the sponge was left during a 1988 gall bladder operation, conceded five days before trial that it was at fault. Morris admitted on the stand that the nurses breached the standard of care by failing to count the sponges before Boerste was closed during surgery.
Nunley, who claimed he couldn’t remember the call from the radiologist, testified that Brumleve, not he, was responsible for failing to tell Boerste about it.
The defendants’ experts testified that she was doomed to lose her leg because of her worsening diabetes and vascular disease, obesity, former smoking history and overall poor lifestyle choices.
Franciscan settled before trial, while a claim against Family Health Centers remains pending in federal court.
The jury unanimously found that U of L Hospital and Brumleve were at fault. It found Morris liable by a 9-3 vote. But by the same vote, it ruled that Nunley was not liable.
Apportioning blame, it found the hospital 60% at fault, Brumleve and Franciscan 15% at fault and Morris 10% at fault.
The jury awarded $550,000 for past medical expenses, $875,000 for future expenses, and $8,075,000 for mental and physical pain and suffering, for a total of $9.5 million, plus $1 million in punitive damages.
The verdict was reduced by 30% to offset the amount awarded against Fransiscan and Family Health Centers, bringing the total collectible damages to $7.65 million.
Bolus said the hospital’s last settlement offer before trial was $500,000.
Follow reporter Andrew Wolfson on Twitter: @adwolfson
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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: University of Louisville Hospital left sponge inside woman for years