Fort Lauderdale (January 23, 2017) – A Broward County jury in a medical malpractice case last week awarded $2.85 million to the family of a former Margate police officer who died in the hospital of a treatable illness that physicians failed to fully diagnose and later treat properly.
Jerry Pettigrossi arrived at Northwest Medical Center with classic symptoms of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder that affects the body’s autonomic functions and peripheral nervous system. His condition worsened over the coming days to affect his lower and upper extremities, eventually leading to respiratory compromise, pulmonary arrest, and loss of oxygen to his brain, resulting in a significant brain injury. He was placed on life support and died on April 9, 2012.
“Though the condition can be deadly, it is virtually always survivable if the patient is closely monitored in an ICU setting,” said Peter Spillis, partner with law firm Kelley | Uustal. Co-counsel on the case was Bonnie Navin. “He was left to suffocate alone in his room where he was found unresponsive.”
Lt. Jerry Pettigrossi retired from 27 years on the Margate police force and was enjoying retirement with his wife, Ann. On March 21, 2012, Pettigrossi arrived at the Northwest Medical Center emergency department complaining of “rubbery legs.”
These were classic signs of Guillain-Barré. Standard of care recommends such patients be monitored closely. The emergency room doctor ordered Pettigrossi be admitted and placed on a telemetry floor where he would get additional monitoring. However, the attending physician covering for Ajaib Mann, M.D., opted to change that order and place Pettigrossi on a regular medical floor. Dr. Mann himself didn’t correct the room placement.
Over the next three days, Pettigrossi’s deteriorating condition left his legs and arms paralyzed and Pettigrossi unable to feed himself or hold a telephone. Though Pettigrossi’s blood pressure and heart rate remained fairly stable, it is common for patients with Guillain-Barré to decline quickly. The gold standard of care is to protect their airway.
Around 9 p.m. on March 24, Dr. Mann was notified by the floor nurse that Pettigrossi’s heart rate and blood pressure had risen dramatically from just a few hours earlier. Dr. Mann ordered a stat consult with a cardiologist, but never personally came to examine his patient.
Because Pettigrossi was left alone in a standard room, nobody noticed the progressing paralysis of his core muscles. He was found without a pulse in his room at 4:30 in the morning. During the two-week trial in Broward County Circuit Court, Dr. Mann testified that he did not know back in March 2012 how Guillain-Barré affects a patient, nor was it the standard of care for him to know. He believed the consulting neurologist should have been responsible for managing the patient. Yet, when notified of the patient’s decline on the evening of March 24, Dr. Mann never ordered the nurse to call, nor did he personally call, the consulting neurologist.
The neurologist testified that if someone had called him with those critical values he would have immediately directed Pettigrossi to the ICU and Pettigrossi would not have died. The defense’s position throughout the trial was that it was the responsibility of the nurse assigned to the patient to ensure the cardiologist came to the hospital on a STAT basis. Though the nurse noted three places in Pettigrossi’s chart that the consult was called out as STAT, the cardiologist recalled at trial no mention of STAT, also noting his understanding of a STAT consult was to come to the hospital within four to five hours. The jury awarded $750,000 in economic damages and $2.1 million for the family’s pain and suffering, with Dr. Mann 85% at fault and the nurse 15% at fault.
“This was a complicated medical malpractice case, but the jury listened closely to the evidence,” said co-counsel Bonnie Navin. “Obviously, they determined that despite Dr. Mann’s desire to not take responsibility and to blame everything on the nurse, the facts and evidence said otherwise.”