Failure to Recognize Post-operative Respiratory Depression: $1.75M Wrongful Death Settlement

2022 Medical Malpractice Case Settlement
Middlesex Superior Court, Massachusetts
By Attorney Robert M. Higgins

Failure to recognize respiratory depression leads to cardiac arrest and death   

Case background

The decedent had a past medical history that included COPD/asthma, and congestive heart failure. She had a previous respiratory depression from narcotic administration after a knee replacement.

Neck surgery

In 2014, she began to complain of progressively worsening neck pain and limitations in head rotations. She was seen by a neurosurgeon who decided she needed to undergo neck surgery to relieve her pain.

On 9/25/14, the decedent underwent a C3-C7 laminectomy and fusion. The procedure itself was uncomplicated and she was taken to the PACU in stable condition upon completion of surgery. A few hours after the surgery, the decedent began to complain of extreme pain. She was evaluated and was given narcotic medications.  

Post-operative narcotics, patient monitoring

A few hours after getting her narcotics, the defendant P.A. was called to see the decedent as the nurse felt she was unusually sleepy with decreased alertness. The defendant P.A. decided she was fine and nothing more was needed at that time. Decedent was given more narcotics for pain and remained very sleepy the rest of the night and overnight. 

The following morning, the defendant nurse caring for the decedent noted that she thought the decedent was too somnolent and was unable to arouse her easily. She notified the defendant P.A. of her concerns and noted that the defendant P.A. gave no new orders. 

The defendant nurse noted that the decedent’s O2 sats were dropping and she was having a hard time following commands. The defendant nurse did not alert any physician of her concerns. 

Late morning the defendant nurse checked on the decedent — she was pulseless and unresponsive and a code was called. Despite CPR and resuscitative efforts, the decedent was pronounced dead after about 30 minutes. Cause of death was respiratory and cardiac arrest.

Failure to recognize respiratory depression from narcotic pain medication

The plaintiff retained an expert who opined that the decedent had a respiratory depression from narcotic pain medication and that the defendants failed to recognize the depression until it became a respiratory and cardiac arrest. It was the expert’s opinion that the decedent should have been taken off narcotics until she was fully awake and alert post-surgery. If that had occurred she would not have suffered her cardiac arrest and death. 

The case settled a few months before trial for $1,750,000.

Lubin & Meyer attorney Robert M. Higgins and Andrew C. Meyer, Jr. represented the plaintiff in this medical malpractice lawsuit.

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