Sepsis is a life-threatening response by the body to infection. Unfortunately, the risk of acquiring an infection in a South African hospital is high.
You may have grounds for a malpractice claim if you suffer from sepsis because of inferior care in a South African hospital.
High infection risk in SA hospitals
Sepsis occurs when the immune system goes into overdrive to fight an infection, causing inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can lead to multi-organ failure that can result in injury or death.
According to a 2020 study conducted at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, 22 out of 769 admissions developed hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). The study found that HAIs are a major cause of morbidity and mortality. An HAI increases the risk of death by 2 to 11%.
Surgical-site infection (SSI) rates are reported to range from 2.5% to 41%. Three-quarters of deaths are directly attributable to SSIs.
Sepsis: importance of early treatment
Sepsis must be diagnosed quickly and treated early to reduce the risk of death.
According to Dr Ron Daniels, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust, a patient diagnosed and treated in the first hour following presentation has more than an 80% survival rate. After the sixth hour, this plummets to a 30% survival rate.
When sepsis results from malpractice
A person can become very ill and sustain permanent injury or die from sepsis even when he or she has received excellent medical care. However, sometimes injury or death is the result of inferior medical care that resulted in delays in diagnosis and commencement of eﬀective treatment.
To establish if there’s been substandard medical care in the diagnosis and/or treatment of sepsis, the opinion of independent medical experts will be required.
So what constitutes malpractice due to inferior care? You may have a sepsis claim for malpractice if your legal team can prove:
- Evidence of any failures to refer a patient to hospital, decisions to discharge a patient from an emergency unit or hospital when the patient is suﬀering with symptoms consistent with infection or sepsis.
- Evidence of a failure to take blood tests where the patient has persisting symptoms or on presentation to hospital. If bloods were taken, whether the results are suggestive of infection and sepsis. Key considerations are whether the C-reactive protein (CRP) level is raised and whether the white cell count (WCC), creatinine, urea and other full blood count results are abnormal.
- Failures or delays in taking blood cultures, performing CT or MRI scanning of symptomatic areas of the body if the source of infection has not been definitively identified.
- In some surgical and postpartum cases, evidence of failures or delays in giving prophylactic or empiric antibiotic therapy.
- Where collections, abscesses or necrotic tissue develop due to infection, failure to timeously drain or surgically remove them.
The three cases below are examples of negligent medical care in the diagnosis and treatment of sepsis.
An eight-month-old baby died after being erroneously diagnosed with tonsillitis and discharged from hospital. This resulted in the delayed diagnosis and treatment of meningococcal septicaemia.
A woman died after midwives failed to suspect abdominal sepsis in the days following delivery that resulted in a delayed start of antibiotics.
A patient required bowel resection, a temporary stoma and further abdominal operations following the inappropriate drainage of an endometriotic cyst that led to peritonitis and delayed diagnosis and treatment of sepsis.
South African cases involving sepsis due to malpractice
During the past decade, malpractice claims involving infection and sepsis in South African hospitals have risen.
A mother of two young children, Johanna van Nikkelen Kuyper, was awarded more than R1 million after winning a malpractice claim against Witbank Provincial Hospital. Her husband, Marthinus van Nikkelen Kuyper, developed septicaemia and died after an emergency appendix operation.
The hospital staff were found to be “extremely negligent” following the operation. The patient’s stomach wasn’t thoroughly rinsed to ensure all septic fluid was removed and the antibiotics given to him were inadequate to kill the organisms that could lead to sepsis.
Not only were the doctors found to be negligent in allowing Van Nikkelen Kuyper to develop septicaemia, but when frantic nurses phoned doctors to immediately attend to the man, they refused.
A 53-year-old woman won damages for a sepsis claim against a gynaecologist who performed a hysterectomy at Lenmed Private Hospital. The woman suffered a septic wound that required further surgery.
The case centred around the lack of and/or negligent follow-up wound care following the hysterectomy. The defendant was ordered to pay 100% of damages, plus all the plaintiff’s legal costs and costs of medical experts.
It’s important to understand your rights and how to proceed if you have a valid medical negligence claim against a doctor, hospital or other healthcare provider in South Africa.
How to make a medical malpractice claim
Infection and sepsis can occur without any breach of duty on the part of medical practitioners. However, if mistakes in diagnosis, treatment or inferior care directly result in sepsis and this leads to injury or death, there may be grounds for a medical malpractice claim.
To bring a successful negligence claim for injury or death caused by sepsis, your legal team must establish that the outcome would have been diﬀerent with an appropriate standard of care. Experts in a number of disciplines are usually required to establish cause.
This can be difficult because sepsis progresses very quickly, which limits the window of opportunity to commence eﬀective treatment before the condition deteriorates and causes permanent injury or death.
Doctors, nurses and medical staff, as well as a hospital, clinic, health authority and private medical groups, can be sued in a medical negligence claim.
Sepsis injury: what compensation you can claim
The amount of damages in a sepsis claim varies significantly depending upon the case. Compensation can range from thousands of rands for a period of prolonged pain and suﬀering or a transient injury up to millions in cases involving permanent physical and/or neurological disability.
In permanent injury cases, the value of the claim will depend on claimant’s age, severity of disability and symptoms, ability to maintain paid employment and the level of future needs.
If a death results from a delay in diagnosis or treatment of sepsis, the value of the claim is determined by the deceased’s circumstances. Did the victim have a spouse, long-term partner, civil partner, minor children and/or financial dependants?
A claimant is allowed to claim compensation for past and future medical and care-related expenses, loss of earnings, general damages for pain, suffering and/or loss of amenity and loss of support if a family breadwinner dies.
Medical malpractice claims and DSC Attorneys
At DSC Attorneys, we specialise in medical malpractice claims and have extensive experience dealing with sepsis claims in South African hospitals.
If death or injury are the result of inferior care in the diagnosis and treatment of sepsis, a claim can result in compensation.
We can assess your claim, help prepare supporting evidence and represent you in legal proceedings, giving you the best chance of receiving the compensation you deserve. We work on a no win, no fee basis.
Contact us at DSC Attorneys for the very best legal support and representation.