Trial of Medical Malpractice Suit Alleging Botched Clavicle Surgery Results in Hung Jury

A jury deadlocked over the question of whether a surgeon breached his duty of care in a procedure that allegedly resulted in serious damage to the plaintiff’s collarbone. The case, Nettles v. Rutkowski, sought $1 million in damages in the Circuit Court of Culpeper County, Virginia. An expert witness from John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland testified on behalf of the plaintiff that the defendant surgeon failed to plan or perform the surgery properly, and other experts for the plaintiff offered their opinions that the surgery had little to no chance of success. The jury was unable to resolve the question, however, and the judge declared a mistrial.

The plaintiff underwent surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and to repair her left clavicle, part of the collarbone, on October 26, 2011. She had suffered injury to her clavicle in the 1990’s. The defendant installed a six-inch metal plate in order to stabilize her clavicle. According to the plaintiff, the defendant was not able to secure the plate properly using screws because of the condition of her bones. He used surgical sutures instead, which reportedly “cut off” the distal portion of her clavicle. This caused severe pain and discomfort. The plaintiff underwent additional surgery in December 2011 to remove the plate. She claims that she continues to experience pain and has a noticeable injury to her left shoulder area.

In her lawsuit, filed in July 2012, the plaintiff alleged medical malpractice against the surgeon and the orthopedic clinic where he performed the procedure. A medical malpractice claim, like other claims for negligence, requires a plaintiff to prove four elements: the the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, that the defendant breached that duty, that the breach directly caused the plaintiff’s injury, and that the plaintiff has suffered measurable damages. A plaintiff in a medical malpractice must identify the standard of care for the defendant’s particular field of medicine, and then must prove that the defendant did not meet that standard.

The plaintiff’s expert witness from Johns Hopkins testified that the defendant breached the standard of care for an orthopedic surgeon in both his assessment of the plaintiff’s condition and in his performance of the surgery. According to the Culpeper Star Exponent, he compared the attempt to attach the metal plate to “an unsuccessful attempt to insert a screw into soft, unstable drywall.” Another expert witness for the plaintiff testified that the procedure had “a 100 percent chance of failure,” comparing the effect of the sutures to a “cheese cutter.” Expert witnesses for the defense testified that the technique used by the defendant was a widely-recognized and approved procedure, and that the defendant did not breach the relevant standard of care. After eleven hours of deliberation, the jury announced that it was unable to decide between the two.

This is a somewhat surprising result given that the plaintiff had experts from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The defense had good experts on their side too. These cases so often come down to the “battle of the experts”, but one would think that, all things being equal, a plaintiff with an expert from Johns Hopkins would be able to convince a jury that the defendant breached the standard of care.

If a medical professional breaches a duty of care to a patient, such as a surgical error or pharmacy misfill, the patient has a right to compensation for injuries and other losses caused by the breach. The medical malpractice attorneys at Wais, Vogelstein, Forman & Offutt protect the rights of Maryland patients and their families. We are available 24/7 and can visit you in your home or at the hospital. Please contact us online, at (410) 567-0800 in Maryland, or at (888) 952-9669 in DC to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

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