Missouri jury awards $2.88 million against pain clinic for malpractice related to steroid injections

by Charles Miller

Joel Burnette of Gladstone, Missouri, was an active 40-year old. He swam, skied, bicycled and lifted weights. He also had chronic lower back pain. For help with his back, Burnette went to PainCARE, an Overland Park clinic operated by Kimber Eubanks and another physician, Daniel Bruning. He received a few steroid injections at the clinic during 2008.

Still in pain, Burdette returned again to PainCARE on Jan. 5, 2009. The injection that Eubanks gave Burnette did nothing to relieve his pain. However, a lump soon started to appear on his back at the spot where the needle had gone in.

Burnette returned to PainCARE on Jan. 13, 2009, for another injection from Eubanks. Burnette testified in a deposition that he told a nurse at the clinic about the lump. According to Burnette, the nurse “took a look at the lump and she said, ‘Well, give me a few minutes, I want to go talk to the doctor.’ She came back and she said, ‘The doctor said it’s no problem.’”

Eubanks testified that he had no recollection of treating Burnette, other than what was contained in the clinic’s medical records. The records do not mention any swelling on Burnette’s back.

Burnettes’s family alleged at trial that the first injection by Eubanks caused the infection and that the needle for the second injection passed through the infected area and contaminated Burnette’s spinal cord.

Steroid injections into the area around the membrane surrounding the spinal cord are a common treatment for back and leg pain. Adverse consequences such as infection are considered rare but are possible. Passing a needle through an infected area can spread the infection to the spine.

After the second injection in January 2009, Burnette’s condition deteriorated rapidly. He initially thought he had a bad case of the flu, but was ultimately diagnosed with meningitis caused by antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria. The infection left Burnette with damaged and chronically inflamed spinal nerves that left him impotent and without control of his bladder or bowels. He had trouble walking and was constantly in pain.

Burdette filed the lawsuit against PainCARE and its doctors in December 2010. Tragically, Burnette took his own life before the case went to trial. His parents contended that the suffering their son endured caused him to commit suicide.

The jurors awarded the parents $2.88 million for Burnette’s suffering and wrongful death. However, Kansas law limits non-economic damages (pain and suffering) to no more than $250,000. Thus, the Burnettes’ award can be no higher than about $1.67 million.

Complications from Epidural Steroid Injections

Epidural steroid injections are widely used to treat back pain. Although the procedure is generally safe, there are, as with any medical procedure, certain risks, side effects, and possibilities of complications. The most common side effect is temporary pain.

Infection is a possible complication of any injection. Delays in treating an infection can allow an infection to spread. Because of the location of epidural injections, a concern is always that a localized infection might spread to the spinal column, possibly resulting in severe neurological deficits.

Because such injections are being performed close to the spinal cord, there is also always a possibility of nerve damage. Fortunately the spinal cord is surrounded by protective tissues and sits deep within the spinal column. As a result, nerve damage is a relatively rare side effect from injections.

Even with a procedure as seemingly routine as steroid injections, medical malpractice can and does happen. Indeed, there are a number of opportunities for things to go seriously wrong if health care providers fail to perform appropriately. To name just a few possibilities: the medicine dose level used could be incorrect, the patient could be improperly positioned, or the wrong size needle could be used. Although rare, possible serious side effects from such injections can include spinal-cord infarction, epidural hematoma or respiratory arrest.

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by Charles Miller

Charles Miller is a licensed attorney and a partner at Heygood, Orr & Pearson. Charles focuses his practice on areas of complex commercial litigation and personal injury litigation.