Suit charging negligence in boy's death is settled Hospital gives parents $300,000

November 19, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

Parents who claimed their 20-month-old son's death was the result of medical negligence at the Bethesda naval hospital reached a $300,000 settlement with the government yesterday, heading off a trial due to begin the same day.

The parents of Shawn Savage Jr. charged that the hospital staff inadvertently gave their son a lethal dose of potassium after he emerged two years ago from surgery to repair a minor defect in his small intestine. The boy died of cardiac arrest the day after his operation.

After surgery, the young boy received an intravenous solution that contained potassium and other nutrients he needed to recover from the operation. Attorneys Gary Strausberg and Zev Gershon, who represented the parents, said the treatment was medically warranted -- but somehow, the boy received enough potassium to kill him.

Pediatric specialists from Johns Hopkins Hospital and Sinai Hospital supported that contention after reviewing autopsy records as well as results of laboratory tests done while the boy was still alive. Mr. Strausberg, however, said the specialists could not tell whether the intravenous solution was improperly prepared, or whether the lethal dose was administered through another procedure.

The boy was the son of Tina Savage and Air Force Sgt. Shawn Savage, who now live in Dover, Del., but at the time of his illness, they came to the naval hospital from a military base in West Germany.

An autopsy report said that the cause of the boy's death could not be determined, but the parents charged that the hospital's own medical records indicated that he had a greatly elevated level of potassium.

Shawn was not truly ill, but had a congenital defect in his intestine that could have caused a life-threatening bowel obstruction if left untreated. The boy's small bowel was positioned in such a way that fibrous tissue would grow between intestinal loops. In the operation, doctors snipped off the adhesions to prevent obstructions.

The case was scheduled for trial in Baltimore before U.S. District Judge Benson Legg. The $300,000 settlement was $50,000 shy of the maximum a judge or jury can legally award to malpractice victims in Maryland, Mr. Strausberg said.

Government witnesses were prepared to testify that the boy's tissues began releasing potassium when doctors were compressing and applying electric shocks to the boy's chest in an effort to restore his heartbeat, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney David Salem.

Mr. Salem said that the potassium levels, therefore, did not cause the boy's heart attack or his death, but resulted from treatment given to revive him. The government decided to settle the case to save the time and expense of going to trial.

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