A jury in Ada County last week decided that one of Idaho’s largest groups of emergency medicine providers must pay $13.5 million in a medical malpractice lawsuit that took nearly five years to make its way through the courts.
The case against an Emergency Medicine of Idaho LLC physician and the company itself could be appealed. But for now, it is the second largest medical malpractice jury award in Idaho history.
The largest award — nearly $30 million — was in a federal case more than 20 years ago, when Idaho parents sued a doctor and hospital in Blaine County over injuries to their child that arose from medical care to the mother.
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Idaho law caps how much a jury can award plaintiffs for damages like pain and suffering — the cap is currently about $400,000 — but there is an exception to that cap for injuries “arising out of willful or reckless misconduct.”
The Ada County jury found that to be true of the emergency medical group, which staffs St. Luke’s Health System emergency departments in the Treasure Valley.
“Of course we are disappointed in the verdict. We will pursue all remedies to address our concerns regarding the case and its outcome. Unfortunately, as litigation is ongoing, we cannot comment any further at this time,” Dr. Matt Hulquist, president of Emergency Medicine of Idaho, said in an emailed statement to the Idaho Capital Sun.
The lawsuit, filed in 2018, originally named St. Luke’s, a radiology group and individual health care providers as defendants. In the years since, all but EMI and its physician have settled the claims against them, according to court records.
Six years ago, he went to the ER with a stroke
The case goes back to the early morning of March 29, 2016. That is when Ada County resident Colleen Moulton discovered husband Carl B. Stiefel on the bathroom floor. He had a “severe headache and vomiting” and became “progressively more confused,” according to the lawsuit.
She called for an ambulance, and Stiefel arrived in the hospital emergency department at 4:12 a.m.
Within about 11 minutes, a doctor was examining Stiefel. Stiefel had recently had sinus congestion, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and a ringing in his right ear.
About an hour later, another doctor said a CT scan of Stiefel’s head showed “no acute intracranial process” — meaning, no sign of a stroke, bleeding or similar problem in his head.
Stiefel’s nausea improved in the emergency room, but he remained “too dizzy to walk,” the lawsuit said, so the first doctor who examined him decided he should be admitted to the hospital for “benign positional vertigo,” the lawsuit said.
Physicians including the first doctor who examined him decided Stiefel might also need an MRI — which offers a more detailed look inside a body’s tissue — if his condition failed to improve as the day went on.
It took at least three hours for Stiefel to be transferred from the emergency room to a hospital bed where he could be observed, according to the lawsuit. By then, another health care provider found him to be “delirious without meaningful interaction,” the lawsuit said. It took another four to five hours for Stiefel to be seen by another doctor, the lawsuit said.
Stiefel was disoriented and restless and couldn’t answer questions about his health as the day went on, according to the lawsuit. A doctor ordered an MRI of his brain, but the machine was not available for hours, according to nursing notes cited in the lawsuit.
Stiefel received an MRI at about 5:50 p.m. It showed he was having a stroke and had a torn artery in his neck.
A surgeon operated on him over the next two days. But Stiefel’s health worsened, and he spent the next three weeks in the hospital, a local rehabilitation facility and back in the hospital with a case of bacterial meningitis, the lawsuit said.
At the time Moulton and Stiefel sued, he had “an irreparable brain injury,” impaired movement, was on disability and could no longer work, the lawsuit said.
Emergency Medicine of Idaho denied liability
In their response to the lawsuit, EMI and the primary doctor who treated Stiefel in the emergency room said they “specifically deny any and all allegations of responsibility and liability” in the case.
The doctor and EMI said Stiefel’s injuries had causes beyond the medical team’s responsibility.
They argued that the medical treatment Stiefel received from the ER doctor was standard for a patient with his medical condition and that the doctor was “at no time … guilty of negligence or improper treatment.” The injuries were a result of complications, not poor medical care, they said.
But after a trial in late January, an Ada County jury found that the doctor — as a member of EMI’s medical team — was reckless in failing to meet standards for medical care, which caused Stiefel’s injuries.
Eric S. Rossman, of the Rossman Law Group PLLC in Boise, represented Stiefel and Moulton and said in an emailed statement that they are “very satisfied with the verdict and they very much appreciate the rendering of justice from the jury in this case.”