7/31/2014

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Jury awards $50 million after test misses birth defect

Jury awards $50 million after test misses birth defect
Oliver Wuth, pictured in a family photo.
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SEATTLE -- A King County jury has returned a $50 million verdict against a Kent public hospital and a medical testing firm after finding both failed to detect a severe genetic problem in a fetus.

Returning its verdict Tuesday morning, the jury found Valley Medical Center and LabCorp staff failed to spot a rare disabling genetic disorder in the child during tests conducted at the parents' request. The child's father was a carrier for the disease, and the couple sought the test to determine whether to continue the pregnancy.

Due to errors made in testing, Rhea and Brock Wuth were told their son Oliver did not have the chromosomal abnormality. When Oliver was born, however, he did have the problem and will require 24-hour care for the rest of his life.

Speaking following the verdict, attorney Todd Gardner said Valley Medical created an opportunity for error by understaffing its genetic counseling clinic. LabCorp wasn't provided crucial documentation, and lab staff failed to notice its absence.

Gardner said both institutions were more concerned with maximizing revenue than ensuring their patients were being cared for properly.

"It was a complete failure of the checks and balances you're supposed to have in medicine, and a betrayal of the faith my clients placed in them," Gardner said.

"You cannot let the business of medicine get in the way of the practice of medicine," he continued.

In a statement Tuesday, a spoekswoman for University of Washington Medicine, which operates Valley Medical, denied wrongdoing by staff.

"We are very sorry for the tragedy the Wuth family suffered," spokeswoman Kim Blakeley said in a statement. "We continue to believe Valley Medical Center staff members acted appropriately."

Two years after their son's birth, the Wuths filed a lawsuit against Valley Medical, a public hospital now run by the University of Washington, as well as Laboratory Corporation of America, the publically traded firm that conducted part of the testing better known as LabCorp. Both are responsible for paying the judgment handed down Tuesday.

Gardner faulted the hospital for cuts to its maternal fetal medicine clinic shortly before the 2007 incident. At the clinic was borrowing a genetic counselor from another hospital one day a week; Gardner said all other similar centers in King County paid full-time genetic counselors.

The genetic counselor was tasked with shepherding the chromosomal tests through to the lab and ensuring they were conducted properly. But the appropriate tests were not completed, and LabCorp never received proper instructions.

Prior to the pregnancy, the Wuths were told Brock had a 50 percent chance of passing on a genetic problem to his child. Because such a pregnancy would likely end in a miscarriage, their odds of having an effected child were much lower but still substantial.

Having decided they did not wish to bring a severely disabled child into the world, the Wuths were prepared to terminate a pregnancy if the child tested positive for the chromosomal abnormality.

A LabCorp staff member failed to get the appropriate medical history documentation or ask Valley Medical for more information. Gardner said the employee was a trainee who left the lab three days after reviewing the test results at issue.

"The lab knew there was a family history of a severe genetic abnormality," Gardner said in a statement.

"They needed to comply with their error prevention policy by making a phone call to ask about missing information-the roadmap to this specific genetic defect," he continued. "LabCorp never made that call."

Gardner said Valley Medical's failure to properly staff its genetic counseling center led directly to LabCorp's failure to find the genetic problem.

Oliver, now 5, has significant physical and cognitive impairments, and a number of physical abnormalities. It was estimated his care will cost more than $20 million throughout his life, which is not expected to be shortened by his disease.

At trial, attorneys for Valley Medical argued the hospital's services met professional standards. They also disputed claims by the couple's attorney that hospital staff failed to provide the correct documents to LabCorp.

LabCorp attorneys denied any negligence and argued the boy's mother couldn't show she would have aborted the pregnancy had she known of the problem. An attorney for the firm said an appeal or additional litigation are being considered.

"We believe the facts and the law do not support the verdict," LabCorp attorney and executive F. Samuel Eberts III said in a statement. "LabCorp acted properly and diligently in performing the test that was ordered by the physician."

LabCorp and Valley Medical are each required to pay half of the total judgment; each would have to pay more if either could not cover its portion. That division of payment may be subject to court action by either institution, both of which are insured against such legal action.

Tuesday's verdict followed a seven week trial before King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer.
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