A telltale sign of the 13-month-old’s spinal cord injury was there on the x-ray for all to see, but nobody did. Not the doctor who ordered it, not the radiologist who signed off on it, not the doctor who wrote in her chart that the x-rays showed nothing unusual.
“If they had, the little girl, named Destiny*, would be walking today,”” says personal injury attorney Kenneth Suggs.
“It was medical negligence all the way down the line and my client, whose legs are paralyzed, will pay the price forever,” Suggs said.
“This is a tragedy that, if the doctors had followed acceptable standards of medical care, never would have happened. It’s that simple.”
How Did the Hospital Make Such a Big Mistake?
Destiny was admitted to the local hospital’s emergency room in the fall of 2004 after boiling water spilled on her feet at home. Told by her mother that the toddler could not yet crawl, the doctor ordered a skeletal survey, or “babygram,” to assess her overall bone health.
A skeletal survey normally would include an x-ray showing a lateral view of the spine. But this crucial x-ray was never taken. The x-rays that were taken showed an abnormal narrowing of the space between one of Destiny’s discs low on her spine, but the finding was not noted by the radiologist, the lack of a lateral view wasn’t questioned by the ordering physician, and the absence of a full skeletal evaluation was overlooked by the doctor charting her care.
Destiny’s burns were treated and her mom, Maria, took her home.
Nine days later, Destiny was back at the hospital because one of her burns had become infected. It was then that a nurse recorded in Destiny’s chart that the little girl could not move her feet. (That notation would not appear in the hospital’s official medical records, nor would any mention that the nurse had reported her observation to a doctor).
Destiny again was treated and discharged, but there was no follow-up to the charted note that the baby was not moving her feet.
Eight days later Destiny underwent a third examination at a scheduled follow-up. Then, six days after that, Maria brought her back to the hospital because her daughter could not move her legs or sit up without assistance. She was immediately admitted to the hospital.
Staff in the hospital’s Child Neurology Unit ordered a lateral spine x-ray, which showed Destiny’s spine was fractured at the T12 vertebrae and misaligned below that. The next day, a surgeon tried to repair the injury, but it was too late; the spine had been damaged irrevocably. The surgeon told Maria she needed to talk to a lawyer.
Child’s Permanent Medical Injury Difficult to Accept
The advice to find a lawyer went unheeded for about a year while Maria, who holds a master’s degree in public administration, grappled with what happened. “I was in denial. I didn’t want to believe that this was permanent, she was so tiny,” Maria recalled. “But one day I accepted that she was paralyzed, her life would be hard, and she would need a lot of help.”
An attorney referral service connected her to Janet, Janet & Suggs (JJS). Her case was investigated and a lawsuit filed on Destiny’s behalf in the state Destiny and her mother lived.
JJS attorneys “were very informative and kind,” Maria said. “And they were really, really responsive,” she added, launching into a story.
“I remember the time I found out that one of the opposing lawyers went to Destiny’s day care to observe her, which legally they shouldn’t have done without her attorney present. It was a huge ethical ‘no-no,’” she said. “A JJS attorney who officed many states away was down here in 24 hours to respond to the situation.”
“He later handed me his cell phone number and told me to call him anytime. I was touched and impressed,” Maria said.
Settlement Holds Doctors and Hospital Accountable for Medical Mistakes
Partner Ken Suggs, who heads the firm’s South Carolina office, took over the case as litigator.
“Ken was amazing. He told me before mediation started, ‘We’re not going to accept just anything. You can’t just live today, you’ve got to live tomorrow, too,” Maria recalled.
To the defendants’ attorneys Suggs said, “If we have to go to court, we will, and I’ll put Destiny on the stand,’” Maria said. “I think that’s when the other side thought,’ OK, we might need to settle,’” she said.
Added Suggs, “The tragedy of this case is that had one of these doctors followed acceptable standards of medical practice, all our information showed that Destiny’s injury could have been repaired and she would be able to walk today.”
Although the settlement amount is confidential, it is substantial, Maria said. The money has allowed her to stop work so she can care for Destiny, and has provided private schooling for the now 11-year-old and her older brother. Destiny not only acts and sings, but cheerleads for her school.
“She’s intelligent and positive. But she’s also your typical 11 going on 12-year-old. She’s even starting to give me some attitude,” Maria laughed.
Settlement funds in trust for Destiny have helped pay her medical expenses, which so far have included 11 surgeries,” said Maria, who has earned her nursing assistant certification so she can better care for her daughter.
Trust Funds Are Justice and Peace of Mind
The road ahead will be made up of battles, big and small, for both Destiny and herself, Maria admits. But both are fighters.
The only one of triplets who lived through pregnancy, Destiny got her name “because she was a survivor,” Maria explained.
As for herself, Maria was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three months after Destiny was officially diagnosed as a paraplegic.
“It means I really have to watch my stress. If we didn’t have the settlement I’d really have to worry about Destiny’s future. But now that that’s assured, I can also focus on taking care of myself,” she said.
*Names changed to protect client privacy