Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:August 14th, 2007 08:57 EST
Local lawsuit against WVU Hospitals on appeal to WV Supreme Court

Local lawsuit against WVU Hospitals on appeal to WV Supreme Court

By Julie Whiteman

Almost twelve years ago, Allison J. Riggs received an infection during a routine surgery from what is believed to have been a hospital-borne bacterium called serratia. Since this operation, she has had to have seven surgeries, much pain and suffering,  and pay for treatment of this bacteria that, if the hospital would have informed Riggs and her family about the epidemic levels of the serratia bacteria outbreak, may have been prevented.

Riggs had reconstructive surgery on her right ACL on April 25, 1995 at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, WV because of a junior high basketball accident. She nor her family, as well as much of the hospital staff, had any idea of the bacterial outbreak of epidemic proportion that is thought to have been going on in the hospital when the surgery was performed. Without their knowledge, the bacteria infected her femoral tunnel and ate away at her tissue and bone. Three years and four surgeries later, the bacterial infection was identified. Riggs then had to get a graph removed from the first surgery, causing permanent damage in her leg.

Allison Riggs and her father Jack Riggs hired Wesley W. Metheny and Paul T. Farrell, Jr. as their lawyers and filed a complaint against West Virginia University Hospitals. It was discovered that the nurse who was monitoring the occurrence of serratia bacterial infections at the time, Bonny McTaggert, may have misclassified dozens of cases as “community acquired” rather that “hospital acquired” meaning that more people than reported probably acquired the infections while inside the hospital rather than bringing it in from the outside. This allegedly caused the hospital not to properly identify the serratia outbreak as an epidemic at the time.

According to the National Nosocomial Infections Surveillance System (NNIS), nosocomial, or hospital-borne infections are estimated to occur in 5% of all acute care hospitalizations. The estimated incidence is more than 2 million cases per year, resulting in an added expenditure in excess of $4.5 billion. Nosocomial infections probably result in about 90,000 deaths a year in the United States.

This type of bacteria is unfortunately common in hospitals and usually effects children and newborns. In April of 2004, there was a terrible outbreak in Melbourne, Australia in which two babies died and over 25 babies were isolated. Eventually after desperate measures, the ward closed to all new admissions until they could control the outbreak. 

 “[Hospitals] are forgetting about the basic school of medicine: do no harm,” says Wesley W. Metheny, lawyer for the defendant. He believes that hospital acquired infections are out of control and many hospitals are understaffed in the area of controlling these infections. Metheny says that it does not make sense for someone to become infected with bacteria while in the hospital, and still have to pay for the treatment of it. This is one reason why he chose to represent the Riggs family in this case.

On September 5, 2006, a jury returned a verdict for $85,000 in economic damages $10 million for pain and suffering. The court then reduced that amount to $1 million because there is a cap on how much can be given for pain and suffering damages in the state of WV under the Medical Professional Liability Act. However, Riggs’ lawyers argue that the “patient care” that is part of the MPLA does not apply to Riggs’ case because it did not have anything to do with patient care. She contracted a bacterial infection from the hospital itself. WVUH argues that the case is and always was a medical malpractice suit and therefore the MPLA applies. The WVUH Department of Infection Control was charged with the duty to monitor, prevent and control nosocomial, or hospital acquired, infections contracted by its patients while admitted to its facility. The case is now on appeal to the WV Supreme Court of Appeals in Charleston, WV.

Neither Jack nor Danielle Riggs nor the WVUH lawyers were available for comment.