It was a bittersweet moment for a family in Arkansas. After a long legal battle, the family was relieved to hear that they had won $46.5 million in a medical malpractice verdict. However, there is no amount of money that will ever fully bring restitution for their child’s serious, extensive brain damage. Kara Small is only two-years-old, but her family already knows that she will need around the clock care for the rest of her life. Her profound brain damage was directly caused by jaundice, a condition where bilirubin builds up in the blood stream. If it goes unnoticed, it can cause permanent, irreversible brain damage.
The verdict came at the end of a two-week trail in Arkansas. Kara’s parents had hired lawyers from South Florida to come in and represent their daughter in case. The attorneys argued that Dr. Johnathan Lewis and the Ouachita County Medical Center had failed to follow national safety guidelines for screening against jaundice in newborns. The court found Dr. Lewis 85 percent liable for damages and the rest of the fault was placed on the hospital.
According the family’s attorneys, the baby had routine bloodwork at the hospital that showed high bilirubin levels. However, doctors and hospital staff failed to treat the jaundice or do any further testing to monitor the levels in the days afterwards. The resulting brain damage is expected to cause severe developmental delays in young Kara. Doctors now predict that she will have to use a wheelchair and will need 24-hour-a-day care for the rest of her life.
During the trial, Stanfard University professor Dr. Vinod Bhutani, presented testimony about jaundice and the results of Kara’s specific blood work. Dr. Bhutani is credited with inventing the very system that allowed doctors to test bilirubin levels in newborn babies. During his testimony, Dr. Bhutani showed that Kara’s levels two hours after birth were comparable to what would be expected in a two-day-old. It was not a borderline reading and doctors should have caught it quickly and been aggressive to treat the jaundice.
Attorneys also argued that the hospital should have been extra cautious due to family history of jaundice. Kara’s older sister had jaundice requiring phototherapy. The hospital staff apparently dismissed jaundice concerns based on the visual appearance of Kara. Attorneys argued that this is gross negligence. “You’re not allowed to use visual estimation – you have to do the test.” Kara’s natural dark skin as an African American baby would make it much more difficult to detect jaundice by appearance alone. That’s why blood work was so critical to protect the infant from serious brain damage.
Personal injury attorney Christopher Ligori from Tampa said this case should be a wakeup call to doctors across the country. “It’s easy to cut corners when you’ve been doing a certain job for a long time. But this is a reminder that there is never room for any shortcuts in medicine. You have to be thorough at all costs because these are real, human lives at stake.”