The family of a woman who died less than a week after giving birth at Abbott Northwestern Hospital has won a judgment exceeding $20 million in what the plaintiff's attorneys are calling the largest wrongful-death medical malpractice verdict in Minnesota history.
The six-person jury's unanimous verdict came Monday afternoon in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of the husband and other relatives of Nicole Bermingham, who died on Aug. 26, 2013.
Bermingham was discharged to her home in Maple Grove after giving birth, according to court documents. But she soon returned to the Minneapolis hospital with fever and nausea. Her family contended that the emergency room nurse practitioner who saw her at that point, Patricia Eid, ignored lab test results showing that Bermingham had sepsis and sent her back home.
The 30-year-old woman, a mother for the first time, returned to the hospital 12 hours later and died.
The lawsuit, filed in January 2016, named as defendants Eid and Minneapolis-based Emergency Care Consultants, which provides emergency medical personnel to Abbott and other Twin Cities hospitals. Abbott Northwestern was not sued.
The attorney for both defendants, Barb Zurek, said that "while we disagree with the jury's findings," her clients have not decided whether to appeal.
Eid, 69, currently works as a nurse at Burnett Medical Center in Grantsburg, Wis. Records from the Minnesota state Board of Nursing show one disciplinary action against her, which states that her authority to prescribe had lapsed while she was a registered nurse at Abbott in the early 1990s.
Robins Kaplan, the law firm that represented Bermingham's survivors, said the amount awarded is the largest medical malpractice verdict in state history involving a wrongful death case. Minnesota has seen a larger medical malpractice payout, but that involved an out-of-court settlement and not a trial verdict.
Attorney Chris Messerly, who along with Elizabeth Fors represented the family, said the defense admitted during the trial that there was negligence in Bermingham's care in the emergency room but blamed doctors.
At the time of her death, Bermingham worked at Twin City Orthopedic as an orthopedic physician assistant. She graduated from Wayzata High School in 2001, Grand Canyon University in Phoenix in 2005 and Midwestern University in suburban Chicago with a master's degree in 2007. Survivors include her husband, Edward Bermingham IV, who now lives in Arizona, and her son, Edward V.
"Though she was only with her son 6 days, the day Nicole and Ed brought him home was one of pure joy," her online obituary read. Edward Bermingham IV declined interview requests Tuesday. Messerly said family members are "grateful that they have justice for the loss of Nicole."
Sepsis and malpractice
Sepsis, a severe and toxic bodily response to infection, has been a challenge for American hospitals to detect and treat. A 2014 study found that it was responsible for one-third of adult deaths in the nation's hospitals. And sepsis was a top cause of malpractice claims involving patients admitted to hospitals, according to a U.S. Institute of Medicine report on medical misdiagnosis in 2015.
Hospitals have responded with guidelines for doctors and nurses to improve the odds of patients surviving infections. The Minnesota Hospital Association's Seeing Sepsis campaign, for example, encourages testing for sepsis whenever patients have a temperature and heart rate above 100 and blood pressure readings below 100.
Severe septic shock might be easy to diagnose in an emergency room, but some patients with the infection show up only reporting weakness or that they're "just not feeling right," said Dr. David Larson, medical director of the emergency department at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, in a recent medical education presentation. "You need to have that urgency that these patients could have severe sepsis," Larson said.
The Bermingham family's lawsuit contended that results from the lab tests ordered by Eid four days after Nicole gave birth revealed "classic signs of sepsis." Her symptoms included chills, nausea, a fever of nearly 102 degrees, and pain in her vagina, rectum and back.
Eid "chose not to diagnose Ms. Bermingham with sepsis" and determined that the new mother had a urinary tract infection, the suit read, although lab tests found no bacteria in Nicole Bermingham's urine, according to the suit. That same afternoon, her condition worsened. She lost consciousness and collapsed.
Back in the Abbott emergency room, "doctors promptly diagnosed Ms. Bermingham with severe sepsis and noted that she was 'critically ill,' " the suit said. After receiving antibiotics and undergoing "a total abdominal hysterectomy" in an effort to reverse the effects of the infection, Bermingham died two days after she collapsed.