A jury in Lexington recently returned a verdict of $1.7 million to a woman because of sponges left in her during a surgery and the resulting complications. See Lawreader for more details. This large verdict is unusual for Lexington, Kentucky. What struck me more, however, was that the nurses were held liable along with the hospital, but not the physician. Now I know that what we learn in law school is not necessarily how things work in the real world, but what happened to the physician being the captain of his surgical ship? In a surgery, the surgeon has traditionally been held responsible for the actions of the nurses and technicians because he has absolute control over what they do.
This struck me more than the size of the verdict because my lovely wife is a nurse. I don’t know the specifics but I seriously doubt these nurses carried their own liability insurance. Physicians carry liability insurance because they have traditionally been the parties held responsible as the professionals. I also seriously doubt these nurses retained their own counsel. They most likely relied on the attorney’s representing the hospital and retained by the hospital’s insurer.
It is even more highly unlikely that the nurses have any resources to begin paying such a verdict. Most likely the hospital’s insurer will cover the verdict entirely (pending appeals). However, insurer’s do have a habit of trying to minimize their exposure. I would recommend that nurses get their own liability insurance, but I suspect few could afford the premiums. I would also recommend nurses contemplate hiring their own attorney in situations like this, at least to ride shotgun and look out for their specific interests, rather than trusting entirely in the hospitals defense. Again, this may be cost prohibitive. I will be anxious to learn if the nurses are left to pay any part of this verdict or if there are other ramifications, such as job loss. Then they will need counsel.
My heart goes out to the woman who was injured and I don’t disagree with her being compensated. It is just that my heart also goes out to the nurses involved who are rarely treated as professionals by the physicians, who are not paid as professionals, but who have been left holding that professional baggage in this instance.