That headline appeared two years ago on the Outpatient Surgery website. Too bad it wasn't accurate.
This case has been a topic on the Internet off and on for a few years. Although the patient's surgery took place in 2008, the malpractice trial did not occur until earlier this month.
Like nearly every news media article about malpractice incidents, details were sketchy and sensationalism was featured.
Also common in cases like this that although many stories appeared about the case before the trial, but few reported the verdict. That is because after deliberations lasting less than one day, the doctors were not found guilty of negligence.
According to a story on the only media outlet reporting the verdict—Courtroom View Network, here's what happened.
The patient underwent surgery for debilitating chronic constipation at Duke University Medical Center in 2008. Postoperatively, she developed a recto-vaginal fistula [a tract or tunnel from the rectum to the vagina] due to a portion of vaginal wall being caught in the surgical staple line when the intestine was reconnected. The problem was corrected by a second operative procedure.
Prior to the first case, the patient had been informed that secondary procedures might be necessary if complications arose.
The malpractice suit was originally denied by a lower court because the plaintiff could not find an expert witness to testify that negligence had occurred, but an appeals court ruled that an expert was not necessary because "even a layperson would be able to determine whether or not negligence occurred," and "It is common knowledge and experience that intestines are meant to connect with the anus, not the vagina, even following a surgical procedure to correct a bowel problem."
Although the second operation solved the patient's problem, she claimed that she had suffered a conversion disorder causing slurred speech, tremors, and weakness. However, subsequent treating physicians felt that her symptoms were inconsistent and that she was "trying to appear disabled."
This case illustrates several important principles about medical malpractice cases.
They often take a long time—an average of 4 to 5 years—to be resolved.
Every less-than-perfect outcome is not necessarily due to negligence. Recto-vaginal fistula is a known complication of this type of surgery.
Stories from 2013, when the appeals court said the case could go to trial and from this year just before the trial started, implied that the surgeons had mistakenly attached the intestine to the vagina which many of us found hard to believe. But without knowing the details, we could only speculate.
The jury did not believe the alleged damage—a conversion reaction—was real.
This lawsuit, which cost both the plaintiff's attorney and the defendants' insurance company a lot of money and dragged two highly competent and respected surgeons through the mud for 7 years, should never have gotten off the ground.
There was a reason that plaintiff couldn't find an expert to testify that negligence occurred. The intestine was never mistakenly "attached to the vagina."