Washington Court of Appeals Upholds $23.9 Million Jury Verdict – Christopher P. Yuhl

12. 20. 19

Port Townsend family received $23.9 million verdict in case against Jefferson Healthcare after medical errors lead to baby’s permanent brain injury

Port Townsend, Wash. – On December 20, 2019, a Washington jury awarded a $23.9 million verdict in favor of a Port Townsend family whose baby suffered permanent brain injury when she slowly suffocated during labor and delivery at Jefferson Healthcare Medical Center in 2014. The verdict against Jefferson County Public Hospital District, which operates the medical center and several other area clinics, was handed down in Kitsap County Superior Court.

Christopher P. Yuhl of Yuhl | Carr originated and litigated the matter along with co-counsel from the Luvera Law Firm of Seattle Washington, which also tried the case to a successful conclusion.

The jury agreed with plaintiffs Anna Scott and Zachary Burke that doctors and nurses missed several critical signs that their baby, Lana Burke, was in distress during delivery with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, depriving her of oxygen. The baby, who was born blue and needed extensive resuscitation to begin breathing on her own, now suffers permanent brain damage that will severely limit her mental and physical capabilities for the rest of her life.

At trial, attorneys for Scott and Burke argued that medical providers used a fetal heart monitor during delivery, but failed to realize that it was picking up the mother’s heartbeat – not the baby’s – for most of the last three hours before birth, misleading them into thinking the baby was fine.

According to Christopher Yuhl, Baby Lana was essentially strangled by her own umbilical cord and Jefferson Healthcare medical providers did nothing to intervene until after delivery when emergency resuscitation efforts took place. The baby was then airlifted to the Tacoma General Hospital neonatal intensive care unit. “The medical team’s actions – or inactions – deprived her of oxygen, leaving Lana profoundly brain injured,” said Robert Gelatly, lead trial lawyer for the Luvera Law Firm.

Medical experts testified there are several safety measures that labor and delivery teams should use to prevent what’s known as “maternal and fetal heart rate confusion”, including easy fixes such as routinely taking the mother’s heart rate separately from the machine and comparing it to the fetal strip to see if they are identical which would tell them they are missing the baby’s heartrate.

In this case, Jefferson Healthcare did not have those protocols in place. The healthcare providers only noted the mother’s heart rate one time in nearly four hours – and then, even though it perfectly matched the heart tracing, they failed to confirm possible confusion or take action to help Baby Lana. The care team also missed the fact that the heart rate being recorded was accelerating with each contraction, which is a clear indicator they were mistaking the mother’s heart rate for the baby’s heartrate.

“There were many opportunities to see that Lana was in trouble, but the medical team missed every one of them,” Anna Scott said. “Now Lana will have to live with the consequences of the doctor’s and nurse’s poor decision making for the rest of her life.”

Diagnosed with severe brain injury shortly after birth, treating physicians at Tacoma General and plaintiff’s experts testified that Lana Burke will have permanent cognitive impairment, speech and language deficits, and impaired motor skills. Now almost eight years old, she can walk unsteadily but can’t dress or properly feed herself or speak sentences.

“Lana is such a blessing in our lives, and has the most beautiful smile and heart – but she will need care for the rest of her life, and this verdict ensures she has a financial safety net to sustain her for decades to come,” Scott said. “It’s equally important to Zach and me that other parents know about this critical safety issue, and for Jefferson Healthcare to be held accountable so that we can help prevent this from happening to another family.”

The case initially went to trial in October 2018, but a mistrial was declared when the County could not produce enough potential jurors for the pool Prior to the first trial, plaintiffs demanded the $7 million policy limits from Jefferson County Health, which was declined. Following the mistrial and change of venue to Kitsap County, the plaintiffs entered into a “high-low” agreement with Defendant General Electric whom the plaintiffs alleged provided a defectively designed Fetal Heart Monitoring device. The agreement was approved by the Court without objection from Jefferson County Healthcare. The plaintiffs reasserted their policy limits demand prior to the second trial which again Jefferson County Healthcare allowed to expire.

During Jury deliberations, the hospital’s carrier finally offered the policy limits but only under the condition it was accepted prior to the Jury coming back with a verdict. The offer was declined, and the Jury returned with a verdict of $23.9 million in favor of the parents and injured child. GE was dismissed prior to Jury Instructions. Jefferson County appealed the verdict in 2020.

On January 4, 2022, the Court of Appeals for the State of Washington, Division II, returned its unpublished opinion denying all six components of Defendant Jefferson County Healthcare’s Appeal.

The Judgement, including nominal interest, now amounting to $25.5 million, was paid in full by the hospital’s insurance carrier. No petition to the Supreme Court of Washington was filed.

The total settlement amount, after interest and amounts tendered by GE pursuant to the pre-trial agreement, exceeded $26 Million.