On April 9, 2013, a Nevada jury returned a punitive damages award in the amount of $500 million against two affiliates of UnitedHealth Group ($270 million against Health Plan of Nevada and $230 million against Sierra Health Services), arising out of a hepatitis C outbreak in Nevada caused by the unsafe injection practices used by a gastroenterologist while performing endoscopies that resulted in the plaintiffs contracting hepatitis C. One week earlier, the same Nevada jury had awarded the plaintiffs $24 million in compensatory damages.
The plaintiffs were patients of a Nevada gastroenterologist who performed endoscopies on them using injection methods that exposed them to hepatitis C, which they alleged they contracted as a result. Because the gastroenterologist was part of UnitedHealth Group’s network, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants should have known about the gastroenterologist’s unsafe injection practices and therefore they were responsible for the plaintiffs’ injuries.
There is little doubt that the defendants will appeal both the compensatory damages awarded and the punitive damages awarded by the Nevada medical malpractice jury. The defendants argued that they could not be held responsible for the medical negligence of a physician within the network. The plaintiffs argued that the defendants were responsible for the injuries caused by the negligent gastroenterologist because the defendants themselves should have known about the gastroenterologist’s unsafe practices and the gastroenterologist was part of its network.
A spokeswoman for UnitedHealth Group stated after the verdicts, “This was an extreme case where you had a rogue physician. He [the gastroenterologist] went out of his way to hide this not only from us and every health plan that he contracted with in addition to the federal government and other agencies…. It was a very isolated situation … It sets a dangerous precedent because it extends direct responsibility for an unrelated doctor’s medical malpractice on health insurers, which can directly threaten the affordability of healthcare. That’s obviously a big concern for us.”
UnitedHealth Group has stated that if the verdicts are not overturned on appeal, then the health care costs for consumers would be increased without any improvement in patient safety.
A law professor not associated with the Nevada case noted that making health insurers manage not only the costs of health care but also the safety of medical care provided by their network members would result in accountability in the healthcare system: “If you don’t believe in a product you’re selling and don’t want to be held accountable, maybe you should not sell this product. I don’t believe we’re going to find ourselves in a country with no health insurers.”
If you or a loved one were injured as a result of medical malpractice in Nevada or in another U.S. state, you should promptly consult a Nevada medical malpractice attorney or a medical malpractice attorney in your state who may agree to investigate your Nevada medical malpractice claim (or a medical malpractice claim in your state) for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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