The family of Johnny Sledge, who was 24-years-old at the time of his death, was awarded approximately $30 million after a jury found the hospital was negligent. The family brought the claim in the Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court against DCH Healthcare Authority, a regional health provider in western Alabama. Sledge arrived in the emergency room at DCH's Regional Medical Center after being struck by a stray bullet. Dr. Bradley Bilton was the on-call surgeon for the hospital that day; however, he did not arrive at the hospital in time to save Sledge.
At the time of Sledge's arrival in the emergency room, Dr. Bilton was apparently performing surgery at another location. The attorney for the plaintiff told the court that the deceased was “victimized twice” that day. He was referring to first being randomly hit by a bullet and then “left to die” in the hospital because they did not have the appropriate staff available.
Allegations of Negligence
Mr. Sledge was pronounced dead approximately two hours after arriving at the emergency department. The lawsuit claimed that his back wounds were such that surgical care was needed quickly. The plaintiff's claim says that DCH negligently allowed their trauma surgeons with on-call duties to perform surgeries elsewhere in the area on the days where they are also providing on-call coverage for DCH. The defendants cited errors in hospital policies, and the jury agreed at trial.
Several Calls to On-Call Surgeon
At approximately 2:15 that day the hospital first contacted Dr. Bilton, who stated that he was involved in another procedure and instructed them to “call someone else.” The hospital made numerous calls but was unsuccessful in locating another available general surgeon.
The hospital spoke with Dr. Bilton at around 4 p.m., and he recommended the patient be moved to another hospital. Efforts made to sustain Sledge by the emergency department physician were insufficient because he truly needed a surgical remedy.
Following the verdict, the plaintiff attorney stated that the members of the jury had “delivered justice.” A representative on behalf of the hospital expressed condolences to the victim's family; however, based on potential further litigation they could not specifically comment on the incident. The family was satisfied that the case was finally resolved after five-years of legal proceedings.
Malpractice Litigation in Emergency Departments
An estimated $40 million people are treated in emergency rooms across the country each year. The field of emergency medicine is inherently susceptible to potential allegations of medical malpractice.
- Emergency patients often arrive in dire condition and the environment tends to be chaotic
- Over 75% of emergency physicians are named as a defendant in a medical malpractice claim during their career
- Across all specialties, physicians average roughly 50 months of their careers with some litigation pending
- Many medical professionals are known to practice “defensive medicine” at an estimated annual cost of $46 billion, such as from “over-ordering” tests and other precautionary procedures
Dr. Ashit Patel, of Albany Medical College, explained that hospitals often struggle to maintain surgery coverage. He further explained that simply having health insurance coverage is no guarantee that patients will actually have access to the medical practitioner they need. In this case, a general surgeon was what the patient needed, yet often patients need hand surgeons, plastic surgeons, and other surgical specialists that may not be available in emergency settings.