In 2019, a jury rendered a $1.48 million verdict against the State of Washington’s University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) for not training its staff on its own safe patient handling policy, resulting in injury to a patient with a disability who was physically lifted onto an examination table. Rather than pay the verdict, the State of Washington chose to appeal the jury’s decision, dragging out the arduous process its patient has endured in seeking accountability and compensation for her injuries.
Nearly two years later, the Washington State Court of Appeals has now upheld the verdict, finally providing a resolution for patient Missy Kurtz.
“By appealing this verdict, the UWMC chose to continue to pour money and resources into avoiding responsibility and fighting the jury verdict in favor of a patient with a disability, which is particularly troubling in light of the global pandemic that has already strained our state and healthcare systems,” said John Gagliardi of Luvera Law Firm, one of the attorneys representing Kurtz. “The public should be aware of the significant taxpayer dollars devoted by the State of Washington to avoid legal responsibility for this patient’s injury at UWMC, including its costly and unsuccessful efforts to blame its own disabled patient.”
Kurtz suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) or “brittle bone disease,” a rare genetic disorder that results in bones that break easily and often do not heal. She has used a wheelchair her entire life, and prior to her injury at the UW, was able to lead a relatively full life, where she drove and took care of most tasks by herself. Now, Kurtz’s independence is severely limited.
In 2015, Kurtz visited the UWMC for an outpatient echocardiogram. Although required by state law to adopt, implement and train all of its health care providers on a written policy for safe patient handling, the UWMC technicians assisting Kurtz were unaware of the policy, and had no specific training on physically lifting or assisting disabled persons from a wheelchair to an exam table when the table was too high for the patient to access on their own.
Additionally, a lower table or gurney was not made available for Kurtz to accomplish self-transfer. As a result, the UW technicians attempted to physically lift Kurtz onto the exam table, breaking her left arm in the process. Kurtz’s left arm was the dominant limb she used to transfer in and out of her wheelchair and maintain an active life, and the fracture never fully healed.
“UWMC’s negligence has significantly altered Missy’s life and limited her independence – all of which could have been prevented, had its staff been trained appropriately,” Gagliardi said. “This was a flagrant disregard for even the most basic standards of care, violating not only the Washington State safe patient handling law but also the UWMC’s very own Safe Patient Handling Policy.”
“This is exactly the sort of accident that can be avoided by staff training on policies,” added Gagliardi. “At the end of the day, UWMC was so glaringly unprepared for Missy’s visit that they relied on her to offer up suggestions on how to handle her care.”
In this case, UWMC went beyond defending its own conduct, and launched an aggressive and expensive attack on Ms. Kurtz herself. It hired an expert to testify that she caused her own arm to break during the process of being assisted to the exam table from her wheelchair, blamed her for the fact her arm did not heal, and argued that her left arm fracture did not significantly impact her life given her significant pre-existing disabilities. The jury rejected these unfair and unfounded defenses, and the Court of Appeals recently upheld that verdict.
“The University of Washington Medical Center did so much more damage than one broken bone,” said Deborah Martin, co-counsel on the Luvera Law Firm team representing Kurtz. “Instead of accepting responsibility for the training failures that injured its disabled patient, the UW dragged her through a wasteful trial where it portrayed her as ‘damaged goods,’ implying she was already so restricted by her disability that the UW should not be held accountable for any further damage caused by the fracture. It was a despicable defense strategy, and a complete betrayal by a trusted health care provider.”
Though the jury rendered the $1.48 million verdict in August 2019, the State appealed the verdict rather than pay the full amount of the judgment. To date, the verdict has accrued over $115,000 in interest, which the UWMC now additionally owes, but could have avoided had it not elected to appeal. Kurtz herself could have benefitted greatly from those verdict proceeds, which would have given her the ability to purchase mobility aids and engage support services to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, the UW forced her to wait for payment as its appeal wound through the court system for nearly two more years—a process that increased her own expenses and legal fees.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Kurtz said. “As a long-time patient of UWMC, a taxpayer, and more importantly, as a human being, I didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. UWMC pledges to provide superior patient care for all, but they didn’t stand by their own mission and the general healthcare code of ethics.”
Sadly, the UWMC has failed to demonstrate hospital-wide changes in response to its negligence in this case.
“At the end of the day, the jury found that UWMC needs to be held accountable for this kind of behavior,” said Gagliardi. “Missy was simply seeking the safe and reasonable medical care to which all patients are entitled. Her victory in the appellate courts almost two years later is further affirmation of this.”