Large recovery for delay in diagnosing small bowel obstruction leading to fatal aspiration

Bowel obstructions can occur for many different reasons, and most often they resolve on their
own. Some bowel obstructions, however, require more aggressive treatment such as insertion of
a nasogastric (NG) tube to drain the stomach contents to prevent aspiration of gastric contents.
In this particular case, our client, a man in his early 70s, entered a Pittsburgh area hospital with
complaints of nausea, vomiting, and other findings. A few days later his condition did not
improve and the nausea and vomiting continued, the doctor in charge ordered an abdominal x-ray
to be done “stat.” When any medical test is ordered “stat,” that means that it is a matter of some
urgency, and the test is to be done right away and reviewed by a physician. In this case, the
abdominal x-ray was done and completed around 5:00 p.m., and the result said, “highly
suspicious for small bowel obstruction.” Those results were sent and were available on the floor
to the patient’s doctor, but he never looked at it! In the meantime, three or four hours later, the
patient, who had continued with nausea and vomiting, aspirated, and died. The abdominal x-ray
was not seen by the doctors until 9:30 a.m. the following morning, but by that time the patient
was already dead!

Our medical experts said that any x-ray which is ordered to be done “stat” should be reviewed by
the doctor on the floor as soon as the results are available, but that did not happen in this case. If
the physician had seen the results of the x-ray which said “highly suspicious for small bowel
obstruction,” our expert says they would have inserted an NG tube and prevented the death of the
patient. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

This patient was retired and, therefore, we had no claim for lost wages, but he was survived by
his wife. So, the bulk of our damages were for the loss of her relationship with the husband. In
legal terms, that is referred to as the “loss of consortium.” Once we presented the case to the
hospital legal staff, we were able to settle this claim without filing an actual lawsuit.