Pennsylvania Woman Awarded $4 Million in Pertussis Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

A Pennsylvania woman has been awarded $4 million in compensatory damages in a pertussis-related medical malpractice lawsuit.  The lawsuit stems from the 2010 death of her infant daughter, who was just 32 days old at the time of her death.  Read on to learn more about this lawsuit, and what you and your family need to know about pertussis and your legal rights.

Pertussis Medical Malpractice Case Information

In March 2016, a medical malpractice lawsuit was filed against Lancaster Pediatric Associates alleging that the 32-day-old infant died due to complications of pertussis.  The lawsuit claimed that the doctors should have diagnosed the infant with pertussis and started treatment sooner.

According to the lawsuit, the mother had been experiencing symptoms of pertussis, and at multiple visits requested the baby be tested.  The mother told doctors that she had recently traveled to an area where a pertussis outbreak had occurred, and she wanted her daughter to be tested.

At two visits, the infant was not exhibiting signs of pertussis, and no action was taken.  Doctors dismissed the mother’s concerns at the time.  The infant had been born three weeks premature, and had developed a cough shortly after her birth.  A subsequent visit to urgent care resulted in the mother being told to use over-the-counter cough suppressants.  After the infant’s condition worsened, an X-ray was performed, and an inhaler was ordered to treat congestion.  The infant was further diagnosed with bronchitis.

Just days after being diagnosed with bronchitis, the infant was rushed to an emergency room where she was described as cyanotic and having seizures.  She was placed on life support and died just six days later.  Her mother filed a medical malpractice lawsuit, and a jury agreed that Lancaster Pediatric Associates and two doctors who subsequently saw the child were at fault 50 percent and 25 percent each, respectively.  Attorneys for the defendants plan to appeal the jury’s decision.

What is Pertussis?

Pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, is an incredibly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.  The bacteria attaches itself to the thin lining of the upper respiratory system (cilia) causing damage and swelling of the airways.  Pertussis is transmitted person-to-person, and may be spread by coughing or sneezing, or simply spending time near someone who is infected and shares the same breathing space.

People who are infected with pertussis may be contagious for up to two weeks after their cough begins.  Antibiotics can help shorten this period, but it is not guaranteed.  The most effective tool to prevent contracting pertussis is being vaccinated, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that like most other vaccinations, the pertussis vaccination is not 100 percent effective.  When an “outbreak” occurs in any community, there is a chance that anyone, even those vaccinated, could contract the disease.

Is Pertussis Dangerous for Babies?

Yes! According to the CDC, pertussis is extremely dangerous for babies, even deadly in some cases.  Babies are most at-risk during the first six months of life, even if they are otherwise completely healthy.  Babies younger than two months old only have limited antibodies from their mother, so they have little protection from diseases like pertussis.

In some cases, babies may be exposed to pertussis before they have been vaccinated, which places them at greater risk of developing the disease or related complications.  According to the CDC, the most dangerous complications of pertussis include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Convulsions
  • Apnea (slow or stopped breathing)
  • Encephalopathy (brain disease)
  • Seizures
  • Death

Many people believe that pertussis, or whooping cough, is a disease that has abated and is no longer a concern now that vaccines are readily available.  According to the CDC, the number of pertussis cases is on the rise and parents should be especially cautious.  Consider the following data:

  • Every year, the CDC responds to 10,000-50,000 cases of pertussis in the United States.
  • Pertussis cases are reported in every state, though outbreaks may impact some statewide statistics.
  • In 2012, there was a record number of cases, with 48,000 cases reported – more than any year out of the past 60.
  • Since 2010, every year, as many as 20 babies die due to pertussis-related complications.
  • Most babies who develop pertussis need treatment in a hospital. Of those, around one out of every four will develop pneumonia.  One or two out of every 100 will die.

What are the Symptoms of Pertussis?

When it comes to pertussis, early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to a healthy outcome.  Without properly diagnosing and treating the disease, babies are at a great risk of suffering devastating complications.  For parents, it is important to know what signs and symptoms your infant may exhibit, and get medical attention immediately.  Consider the following symptoms:

Early Onset:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Runny nose
  • Mild, inconsistent cough
  • Apnea

During early onset, the symptoms of pertussis may seem like nothing more than a “common cold”.  It is important to make sure that you and your child have been vaccinated against pertussis, and that your child gets tested if you are concerned about exposure.

Later Stage:

  • Paroxysms (fits of coughing following by a high pitched “whooping” sound)
  • Vomiting during or after fits
  • Exhaustion

In the later stages of the disease, coughing fits become more severe and frequent.  Infants may have difficulty breathing and may be incredibly tired.

It is important to note that pertussis, or whooping cough, doesn’t always include coughing as one of the main symptoms.  Your baby may not have a cough, but may instead suddenly turn blue in color and stop breathing due to swollen airways.

How is Pertussis Diagnosed and Treated?

To diagnose pertussis, healthcare providers consider several factors.  First, they will conduct a complete physical examination, and will review signs and symptoms.  Next, they will conduct a test, which generally consists of a nasal or throat swab.  In some cases, they may also collect a blood sample for analysis.

Healthcare providers should also determine if you or your child have been exposed to pertussis, such as traveling in an outbreak area, or visiting with friends or family that have the disease.  If so, additional tests may be ordered and treated initiated.

The best way to treat pertussis is antibiotics.  There are currently several antibiotics that are effective in treating pertussis, but which one is chosen will depend on your individual situation and overall health.  In most cases, pertussis can be treated at home with antibiotics and other home management tools, such as:

  • A detailed antibiotic schedule
  • Keeping the home clear of irritants such as dust, smoke, or chemical fumes
  • Use of a vaporizer with cool mist to soothe the cough and loosen mucus
  • Use of proper handwashing and hygiene
  • Proper nutrition and hydration plan
  • Careful monitoring for nausea and vomiting

In more severe cases, especially in infants and young children, pertussis may require treatment in a hospital.  In these cases, treatment may include IV fluids and medication, respiratory therapy, and other procedures as needed.

Have Questions about Pertussis Diagnosis, Treatment, or Lawsuits?

If you have questions about the medical standards for diagnosing or treating pertussis, or want to know more about pertussis-related medical malpractice lawsuits, contact Brown & Brothers today.  Our medical malpractice and birth injury attorneys know all too well the devastating consequences of failed or delayed diagnosis.  Learn more about your legal rights and options by filling out our online form.

Sources:

https://lancasteronline.com/news/local/lancaster-county-mother-awarded-m-in-malpractice-suit-on-infant/article_78554346-5938-11e8-99d6-c7a65cdc96d1.html

https://www.law.com/thelegalintelligencer/2018/05/31/family-wins-4m-after-docs-fail-to-diagnose-infants-fatal-whooping-cough/

https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/index.html