Hospital Patient Mistakenly Given Drug Used in Executions

The family of a south Florida man has filed a lawsuit against North Shore Medical Center in Miami. The man, 79 year-old Richard Smith, died in July 2010 when he went to the hospital complaining of shortness of breath and received the wrong medication. The nurse who administered the allegedly fatal dosage received disciplinary sanctions and paid a fine, which the family does not find satisfactory.

Smith told doctors he had shortness of breath and an upset stomach. His treating physician ordered Pepcid, an antacid available over the counter. The ICU nurse instead took a vial of Pancuronium from a locked cart and put it in Smith’s IV. Pancuronium is a muscle relaxant used by the ICU when intubating a patient. In larger doses, it is used by the Florida prison system in executions as part of a three-drug cocktail. The drug does not affect consciousness, but does significantly impair motor functions. At high enough doses, a person would not be able to breathe.

According to hospital records, no one noticed Smith’s condition for thirty minutes. When hospital staff finally recognized the problem, Smith’s heart had stopped. Resuscitation efforts did not succeed in reviving him. An investigation by the state found that the nurse on duty not only failed to read the label on the medication, but failed to scan both the drug label and Smith’s patient ID bracelet. These would have alerted the nurse to the problem. Another report indicated that the nurse did not follow safeguards established for the drug cart containing the Pancuronium. The state cited the hospital for this failure. The hospital has reportedly removed Pancuronium from most nursing areas in the hospital and created a new packaging system with clearer warnings.

According to local news covering the story, the nurse still works at North Shore. He reportedly received a reprimand, paid a $2,800 fine to the state, and attended remediation courses. The hospital described this as appropriate counseling and re-training. Smith’s family disagrees, saying through their attorney that the nurse should not still be permitted to work with patients. This Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog has previously reported on cases where medication errors causing death have led to criminal convictions for involuntary manslaughter. In this instance, the consequences apparently end at professional discipline.

Media coverage does not say specifically what Smith’s family is seeking in their lawsuit, but wrongful death is presumably a claim. A negligence theory seems clear. Dispensing the wrong medication to a patient is a breach of a hospital’s duty of professional care to its patients. In this case, a series of omissions allegedly caused Smith to receive a muscle relaxant, a medication wholly inappropriate to his medical needs, which allegedly caused his death. Smith’s family can claim damages for the loss of his financial support and his companionship, as well as medical and other costs. Smith’s widow told the news that she and Smith, in addition to raising four children of their own and ten others, were raising a 2- and 10-year-old at the time of Smith’s death. The children’s mother had recently died and they had taken the children in.

Patients who have suffered injury due to hospital pharmacy errors have rights to compensation for their damages. If you or a loved one have suffered harm from a medication error, contact the Maryland pharmacy error attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen online or at (800) 654-1949 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Infant Dies of Accidental Antibiotic Overdose in Hospital, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer, November 9, 2011
Preventing Medication Mix-Ups at the Pharmacy, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer, October 5, 2011
Hospital Patients are Subject to an Average of One Medication Error per Day, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer, September 14, 2011
Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com

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