UW to pay $15M after medical mistake

SEATTLE — The University of Washington will pay $15.2 million in a medical malpractice judgment after a mistake caused a debilitating brain damage to a girl in 2008.

The sum ordered Friday by a King County judge is one of the largest medical malpractice payments in state history, The Seattle Times reported Saturday.

The settlement stems from the case of MacKenzie Briant, who five years ago was being treated for a heart defect at Seattle Children’s hospital. After she got a cold, her mother consulted with doctors who had treated her, but miscommunication between two cardiologists led them to prescribe a nasal spray that blocked MacKenzie’s breathing. The prolonged lack of oxygen caused brain damage.

For her mother, MacKenzie’s early history makes what happened even more painful.

MacKenzie, born with a heart defect in 2004, had survived a heart transplant early in life. By 2008, before her injury, she had nearly caught up with her peers, delighting in the attention she received from her parents and giggling during “sword fights” with her older brother, Ethan, in their Snoqualmie, Wash. home.

“Oh my God, she lived through half a heart for almost 4 months. She had a heart transplant, for God’s sake. She’s been a fighter and working so hard her whole life,” Elaine Briant said.

Now 8, MacKenzie is unable to walk or talk or swallow, and doctors say she will require round-the-clock nursing care for the rest of her life.

Initially, the official stance of the UW and Seattle Children’s — that MacKenzie’s injuries were not caused by the nasal spray but by breathing complications from her earlier transplant — plunged the family into constant battles with insurers, Briant said.

At the trial in King County Superior Court, the lawyer representing Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington, which employed the doctors, was frank in his opening statement.

“The very first thing I want to say on behalf of both Seattle Children’s and University of Washington is we made a mistake,” Clarke Johnson said in court.

But that mistake and the nasal spray prescribed were not responsible for MacKenzie’s “severe and devastating brain injury,” Johnson told the court.

The trial, replete with technical experts and material, took three weeks. For six weeks afterward, Judge John Erlick weighed the testimony and evidence.

Friday, Erlick ruled the nose spray, given after “negligent advice,” did cause the cardiac arrest that left MacKenzie with brain damage.

He said the UW doctors at Seattle Children’s had failed in their duty to communicate with each other, and to properly advise Elaine Briant.

In the courtroom, as the judge announced the award, Elaine Briant began to cry softly.

“I wish MacKenzie would be the way she was before,” she said afterward. “But now we will have the funds to take care of her, which is so important.”

The UW does not plan to appeal the settlement. The money is coming from insurance.

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