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UNMH found liable in MRSA lawsuit brought by patient

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A state court jury has decided that the University of New Mexico Hospital is liable for not testing surgical patient James Woodard of Roswell for MRSA before his 9½-hour back surgery, leading to infection and a dozen more subsequent surgeries that left him in a wheelchair he didn’t need before the procedure.

MRSA is an infection caused by a type of staph bacteria that has become resistant to many antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections.

The jury, which began hearing the case June 21 before 2nd Judicial District Judge Carl Butkus, awarded $4.2 million Tuesday to Woodard and his wife, Diane, who have been married 45 years.

But the Woodards’ lawyers say the couple can recover just over $1 million from UNMH because it is a state institution and covered by the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, which imposes caps on claims.

Attorneys Amalia Lucero and Lisa Curtis, who represent the Woodards, say James Woodard came to Albuquerque for a two-stage back surgery in spring 2012 and wasn’t tested for the bacterium that causes the infection before either one of the procedures. That, they alleged in a lawsuit, fell below the standard of care.

UNM acknowledged in a court filing that it does not screen all hospital patients for MRSA, but said it is not required to do so. Some hospitals do, but there is no defined standard of care requiring it, according the defense position in the filing. UNM policy requires patients in intensive care units to be screened for MRSA.

UNM also said it was not known where Woodard became “colonized” with the bacterium, distinguishing “colonization,” meaning a person has MRSA on a skin surface, from infection.

Lucero and Curtis said the evidence showed Woodard contracted the infection in the hospital and medical personnel knew it within minutes of concluding the procedure. Woodard ended up with “a massive surgical site with MRSA” that meant not only 12 more surgeries to deal with problems from the infection, but also an extensive period of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

The problem was found because the couple’s son is a physician working as a hospitalist in Flagstaff and saw that “the wound just didn’t look right. The infection was deep inside the body and it takes a while to work its way out. They opened one of the surgical wounds and puss came pouring out,” according to Lucero and Curtis.

Woodard ended up with osteomyelitis because the infection went all the way down to his bone.

Lucero said their clients cried when the verdict was announced at being vindicated.

But because of the way the caps are set up under the Tort Claims Act, the Woodards can recover only $1.05 million and will have to fight claims from insurance carriers wanting some or all of it.

“The fighting doesn’t stop with the verdict,” Lucero said. Although Woodard’s medical costs topped $2 million, the cap on recovery of medical bills from UNMH is $300,000, she said.

“The judge will award costs of the case against the defendant,” Lucero said. The Woodards won’t be compensated as they should be based on the jury findings, but they ultimately will have something substantial, Curtis and Lucero said.

The defense could also file post-trial motions to alter the amount ordered by the verdict.

“It’s being evaluated by our legal department,” Billy Sparks, communications director for the UNM Health Sciences Center, said Wednesday. “There’s been no decision on additional litigation.”