Spinal epidural abscesses (SEAs) can be difficult to diagnose and may result in neurological compromise or even death. Delays in diagnosis or treatment may worsen the prognosis. While SEA presents a high risk for litigation, little is known about the medicolegal ramifications of this condition. An enhanced understanding of potential legal implications is important for practicing spine surgeons, emergency medicine physicians, and internists.
The VerdictSearch database, a large legal-claims database, was queried for “epidural abscess”–related legal cases. Demographic and clinical data were examined for all claims; any irrelevant cases or cases with incomplete information were excluded. The effects of age of the plaintiff, sex of the plaintiff, presence of a known infection, resulting paraplegia or quadriplegia, delay in diagnosis, and delay in treatment on the proportion of plaintiff rulings and size of payments were assessed.
In total, 56 cases met the inclusion criteria. Of the 56 cases, 17 (30.4%) were settled, 22 (39.3%) resulted in a defendant ruling, and 17 (30.4%) resulted in a plaintiff ruling. The mean award for plaintiff rulings was $5,277,468 ± $6,348,462 (range $185,000–$19,792,000), which was significantly larger than the mean award for cases that were settled out of court, $1,914,265 ± $1,313,322 (range $100,000–$4,500,000) (p < 0.05). The mean age of the plaintiffs was 47.0 ± 14.4 years; 23 (41.1%) of the plaintiffs were female and 33 (58.9%) were male. The proportion of plaintiff verdicts and size of monetary awards were not affected by age or sex (p > 0.49). The presence of a previously known infection was also not associated with the proportion of plaintiff verdicts or indemnity payments (p > 0.29). In contrast, juries were more likely to rule in favor of plaintiffs who became paraplegic or quadriplegic (p = 0.03) compared with plaintiffs who suffered pain or isolated weakness. Monetary awards for paraplegic or quadriplegic patients were also significantly higher (p = 0.003). Plaintiffs were more likely to win if there was a delay in diagnosis (p = 0.04) or delay in treatment (p = 0.006), although there was no difference in monetary awards (p > 0.57). Internists were the most commonly sued physician (named in 13 suits [23.2%]), followed by emergency medicine physicians (named in 8 [14.3%]), and orthopedic surgeons (named in 3 [5.4%]).
This investigation is the largest examination of legal claims due to spinal epidural abscess to date. The proportion of plaintiff verdicts was significantly higher in cases in which the patient became paraplegic or quadriplegic and in cases in which there was delay in diagnosis or treatment. Additionally, paralysis is linked to large sums awarded to the plaintiff. Nonsurgeon physicians, who are often responsible for initial diagnosis, were more likely to be sued than were surgeons.