$875,000: Barnwell County Hospital settles malpractice lawsuit in death of Josephine Workman

First Byline: 
Jonathan Vickery - Managing Editor

A medical malpractice lawsuit against Barnwell County Hospital over the death of a patient ended with an $875,000 settlement.
The lawsuit was filed after Josephine Workman, a 59-year-old Barnwell resident, died on the operating table Oct. 9, 2009. The case went to trial May 12 at the Barnwell County Courthouse, but the hospital's insurance company settled before the jury could hear the whole case.
"They should have offered that money three years ago," said Robert Phillips, one of three attorneys who represented Workman's children; however, the hospital kept denying any wrongdoing. "There was clear liability."
"I'm happy they finally took responsibility," added attorney Dan Luginbill. "This is a case where it's so obvious this patient should never have been operated on."
When asked for comment on the settlement, hospital CEO Mary Valliant said their lawyer, Michael Tanner, had a press release.
The release expresses condolences to the Workman family. "It was the aim of BCH to provide exceptional care to the citizens of Barnwell County and the surrounding area, regardless of their ability to pay or their insurance status. BCH complied with all applicable laws and did not turn any patient away based on ability to pay for professional services. While BCH understands the nature of litigation and allegations, it is with sincere hope that this will allow for the healing process to begin and afford for some sense of closure," states the release.
The Procedure
On Oct. 9, 2009, Workman was scheduled to have surgery to reverse an ileostomy she had undergone previously for a colon blockage. Dr. Majeed Kaun (not to be confused with long-time Barnwell doctor M.O. Khan) was to perform the surgery to remove a colostomy bag and reconnect her bowels.
When Workman arrived at the hospital, she was having chest pains. "Instead of stopping the surgery and sending her for a cardiac assessment, the surgeon started loading her up with (nitroglycerin) and forged ahead," said Phillips. According to court documents, the plaintiffs stated Workman was given three doses of nitroglycerin between 8:10 and 8:28 a.m.
The surgery started around 9 a.m., but several hours into the surgery Aubrey Thomas, the certified registered nurse anesthetist, noticed Workman had an "unusually fast heart beat." According to court documents, a lidocaine drip, which is used to slow one's heart rate, was not available in the operating room.
Around 1:40 p.m., Workman suffered a heart attack and died.
Blame Game
Both parties blamed the other for the death of Workman.
The plaintiffs said Dr. Kaun and the other medical staff should have never allowed the elective procedure to take place. "It wasn't going to kill her" to postpone the surgery, said Luginbill.
Luginbill said the hospital was "really pressuring (Kaun) to do surgeries" to help pay back money they felt he owed them. The hospital paid Kaun's mortgage and daughter's college tuition while he was stuck out of the country for seven months in the Middle East.
In its response, the hospital said its staff "did not deviate at any time from the standard of care" and blames Workman.
Dr. Kaun was later fired by the hospital and thought to have left the United States. He was not present in court last week.
The Settlement
In anticipation of a trial, Phillips said he spent $80,000, mainly on medical experts, such as a surgeon and CRNA, who could explain complex medical terminology for the jury.
"They are very, very difficult cases," he said.
During a mid-day break, the insurance company offered $875,000, which Phillips said was better than the pennies they tried to offer earlier. The hospital could have been ordered to pay up to $1.2 million, the maximum allowed under the Tort Claims Act, which caps the amount public entities can pay.
While Luginbill and Phillips wish the jury could have heard all the testimony and rendered a guilty verdict, they are glad Workman's three children have some closure. "They wanted it over," Luginbill said, adding how a settlement spared them the graphic details of their mother's last day.
"They didn't care about the money, but just wanted someone to say they were wrong," said Phillips. "A life is worth more than that."
A federal lawsuit over the matter was dropped due to the declaring hospital bankruptcy, said Phillips.
Barnwell County Hospital was county-owned at the time of Workman's death, but has since been bought by a private company and renamed Southern Palmetto Hospital.