Jury holds orthopedic surgery group accountable in compartment syndrome case

Compartment syndrome is a dreaded condition that can happen develop after a broken bone.

What is compartment syndrome?

Different areas of the body are grouped together into compartments that are walled off by fascia and connective tissue. A serious injury in the lower leg, such as a broken bone, can cause bleeding and swelling within a compartment. 

Because the connective tissue walls of compartments are relatively rigid, there’s only so much room for expansion. When excessive bleeding or swelling goes unrelieved, pressure within the compartment increases to the point that it cuts off blood flow. This phenomenon is called compartment syndrome.

People who’ve experienced compartment syndrome describe excruciating, severe pain the affected area. Without surgical decompression, it can lead to tissue death and even worse complications.

How to spot compartment syndrome

Some surgeons, physicians, and nurses use a memory aid of “The 5 P’s” to identify compartment syndrome:

• Pain

• Pallor (pale skin)

• Paresthesia (numbness)

• Pulselessness (absent or faint pulse)

• Paralysis (weak movements)

Compartment syndrome negligence and medical malpractice

When doctors and nurses ignore signs and symptoms of compartment syndrome, it may constitute  medical negligence and can cause severe permanent injuries to patients.

That’s what a Minnesota federal court jury recently determined happened to a man in his 20s in a medical malpractice case. The jury returned a verdict of $111 million against an orthopedic group and orthopedic surgeon for mismanaging the plaintiff’s post-operative compartment syndrome.

The patient went to the hospital by ambulance after breaking, or fracturing, his left leg. An orthopedic surgeon operated on him to repair the fracture.

According to the medical malpractice lawsuit on file with the court, the patient informed providers in the hospital that he had “severe, difficult-to-control pain in his left lower leg” and “numbness, a burning sensation in reduced contraction of his muscles.” All of these are classic textbook symptoms of compartment syndrome for a patient with a recent broken leg.

Despite the symptoms, the lawsuit alleged that the patient was discharged from the hospital without treatment with instructions to call a physician if his condition worsened.

Six days after he was discharged home, the patient returned to the hospital because of the severe pain in his left leg. A different orthopedic surgeon with the same group evaluated the patient’s leg and diagnosed him with acute compartment syndrome. The surgeon noted abnormal findings in the patient’s anterior compartment leg muscles, including a gray color and absent motor function or contractility. They were basically dead.

The surgeon’s findings sound like a classic case of compartment syndrome. 

Looking back to his post-operative complaints before he was discharged from the hospital the first time, his severe pain was likely a sign of bleeding or swelling within the anterior compartment of his left leg, which is where the fracture and surgery occurred. Without treatment, the pressure within the compartment continued and probably crimped and restricted the blood supply. This starved the leg muscle of oxygen and nutrients, leading to tissue necrosis and death. 

The lawsuit documents reflect that the patient faced 20 additional surgeries and was left with severe, disabling, permanent damage to his left leg. In the medical malpractice claim, the patient alleged that the orthopedic group didn’t properly evaluate his symptoms and diagnosis and treat his acute compartment syndrome.

The jury agreed with the patient. Its verdict included $110 million for past pain, disability, disfigurement, embarrassment, and emotional distress. The jury also awarded approximately $500,000 in past medical expenses and around another $750,000 for future medical expenses.

After a jury returns a verdict, it’s up to the court to apply applicable laws and enter a judgment. 

If this case had been decided in Texas, the tort reform non-economic damages cap would apply to the $110 million award, resulting in the judge reducing that number to a paltry $250,000. The tort reform caps wouldn’t apply to the economic damages component of the jury’s award, though, including past and future medical expenses. Thus, under Texas law the likely judgment in this case where the jury returned a $111 million verdict would be $250,000 (non-economic damages cap) + $500,000 (past medical bills) + $750,000 (future medical expenses) = $1,500,000.

If you’ve been seriously injured in Texas because of poor care involving compartment syndrome, then contact a top-rated experienced Texas medical malpractice lawyer for free consultation about your potential case.

Article by

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.