$19-Million Defense Verdict in Case Involving a Spinal Cord Injury During Surgery

November 22, 2022

Phil Willman and Justin Hardin secured a defense win in a case in which the plaintiff suffered a cervical spinal cord injury during lumbar surgery. The plaintiff, a 71-year-old female, presented to the defendant, an orthopedic surgeon, with low back pain that radiated into her legs. She was only able to walk short distances. An MRI revealed that she had severe spinal stenosis in her lumbar spine with bilateral foraminal stenosis as well as lumbar kyphosis with sagittal imbalance. After conservative treatment failed, the defendant offered lumbar surgery to plaintiff, and she underwent a transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion procedure along with decompression of her spinal cord nerve roots with placement of interbody spacers and instrumentation. The plaintiff woke up from that surgery unable to move her arms and legs, and another MRI revealed plaintiff had herniated discs and accompanying spinal cord impingement in her cervical spine. The doctor performed an urgent cervical decompression surgery the following day to alleviate the spinal cord impingement. Her upper extremity strength improved, but her lower extremities remained weak. She underwent another lumbar surgery that ruled out further issues causing her continued neurological deficits. She eventually regained full strength in her upper extremities, but never regained strength in her lower extremities. At the time of trial, plaintiff was wheelchair-bound and unable to walk or stand. Unbeknownst to the defendant, the plaintiff had an MRI of her cervical spine five years earlier that revealed spinal cord impingement and cervical stenosis to nearly the same degree as seen in the MRI performed after the second surgery. Plaintiff did not undergo any treatment following the earlier MRI, and her symptoms of neck pain and arm numbness eventually subsided. It was agreed that plaintiff suffered a cervical spinal cord injury during the original lumbar surgery.

Plaintiff filed suit against the defendant alleging that he was negligent in not discovering plaintiff’s spinal cord impingement in her cervical spine prior to performing her lumbar surgery. Plaintiff presented evidence of a $2.6-million life care plan to provide for her medical needs for the remainder of her life and sought $17 million in non-economic damages (pain and suffering). The defense presented evidence that that the standard of care did not require the surgeon to order an MRI or otherwise work up plaintiff’s cervical spine because she was asymptomatic. The jury deliberated for four hours after a week-long trial and were deadlocked at 6-6. The jury was instructed to return the following Monday and returned a defense verdict after two and a half more hours of deliberation.