In early 2012, Linda Myers, a 60-year-old cancer patient, was vomiting and choking just before receiving a CAT scan at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital. 

What happened next was the focus of a lawsuit her daughter, Michele Mallicott, brought against the public hospital. During the scan, Myers vomited again, causing her to choke and stop breathing long enough that she suffered brain damage, according to the Cook County lawsuit.

Myers, a south suburban Chicago housekeeper, remained on life support until she died eight months later, according to court records. Late last year, Mallicott settled her lawsuit against the hospital for $1.5 million.

The Myers case is one of 41 that the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, which operates Stroger, settled with patients and relatives from 2012 through September of this year, according to data obtained through open records requests. The settlements total more than $80.5 million for medical negligence cases. Chicago’s other major public hospital system, the University of Illinois, agreed to pay $83.7 million in 33 medical malpractice cases during the same period, records show.

Since 2012, the total dollar amounts for settlements at each of these hospital systems swing wildly year to year, showing an inconsistent trend. But multimillion-dollar payments continue to mount despite efforts to cut down on medical mistakes. The Chicago medical centers aren’t unique. Hospitals across the country are struggling to cut down on errors.

“There is a huge problem here,” said Martin Hatlie, chief executive at Chicago-based Project Patient Care, a nonprofit group that researches and advocates for safer medical treatment and advises the federal government. Speaking broadly, he calls hospital legal settlements only “the tip of the iceberg” because a great number of harmful or deadly incidents don’t end up in court.

In 2014, the Better Government Association examined wrongful death lawsuits at public hospitals across Illinois, including local medical centers, Veterans Affairs hospitals and mental health treatment centers. The BGA found that over 10 years those hospitals agreed to pay victims’ families more than $180 million. The vast majority of those settlements were paid out by the Cook County and U of I health systems. 

Linda Myers
  Linda Myers  (provided photo)

In this latest investigation, the BGA focused in on just those two hospitals, but expanded the scope to include injuries that became the focus of medical malpractice lawsuits as well as wrongful deaths. The BGA analysis puts a spotlight on a problem at all hospitals: Human error and inadequate procedures lead to avoidable fatal mistakes or disabling injuries. The mistakes also contribute to the rising overall costs to the health care system.

To be sure, medical negligence also occurs at private hospitals and smaller public facilities. But the BGA examined only Cook County and U of I because of the findings from the previous investigation and their prominence as large Illinois public institutions. Also, the two facilities are publicly run, making records more accessible. 

Officials from both hospitals say trying to compare how well they rate on medical malpractice issues in Illinois and across the nation is extremely difficult. Indeed, public information measuring how much hospitals pay out in medical malpractice lawsuits is sparse and every hospital differs in size, patient population and specialized procedures.

Still, the problem persists. Citing the high cost of fighting the hospitals, plaintiffs’ lawyers interviewed said they turn away most prospective clients unless they view the cases as guaranteed wins in court.

For the past two decades, academic and other private researchers have produced multiple studies on how many people die in the U.S. every year from avoidable medical errors. One study earlier this year estimated that number to be 250,000.  

Medical malpractice graphic

Federal officials are pushing hospitals across the country to reduce avoidable hospital deaths, including those caused by medical errors. As part of that effort, officials in charge of the federal health plans Medicare and Medicaid are reducing payments to hospitals with a high number of deaths, injuries and infections deemed to be preventable. U.S. officials say their efforts are beginning to reduce fatal and harmful errors. 

“I do think we have systemic efforts … and we’re seeing it make a difference, but we have a long ways to go,” Hatlie added. “There’s still a lot of harm that happens.”

Locally, while officials with both Chicago hospitals say they are trying to reduce errors as well as become more transparent about medical mistakes, critics say the efforts fall short.

Mallicott said it was difficult to find details from hospital officials about what happened to her mother during the CAT scan.

“I said to myself, ‘I need to get a damn lawyer because somebody knows what happened,’” Mallicott said.

As part of the agreement in the Myers case, neither Cook County nor Stroger, admit blame or malpractice.

Advocates say too many mistakes still occur

“We’ve made great strides but we’re still not there,” said Bob Malizzo, a patient advocate from Indiana whose adult daughter died after a procedure at University of Illinois Hospital in 2008. “A lot of these doctors need to slow down — slow everybody down so we pay more attention to safety in health care.”

Since their daughter’s death, Malizzo and his wife Barbara travel the country pushing for stronger hospital policies and procedures to protect patients from medical errors. The Malizzos also sit on an internal committee at the U of I hospital where they provide their input on safety issues.

Medical malpractice graphic

 Patient advocates like the Malizzos say hospitals continue to make too many errors ranging from wrong medications to operating on wrong body parts or leaving instruments inside patients.

The BGA examined thousands of pages of court documents from dozens of legal settlements involving alleged wrongful deaths or personal injury cases at Cook County  and U of I over the past five years. The settlements involved cases ranging from brain damage in children to death. Among the largest payouts involved cases in which babies were left permanently disabled following birthing or other procedures.

At the U of I, there are around 200 patient safety “events” reported every week, ranging from minor issues to more serious incidents, U of I hospital’s chief quality and patient safety official Jodi Joyce said. “We treat all seriously.”

Eliminating mistakes in total is unrealistic, she added.

“Errors are a non-preventable part of health care,” Joyce said. “We focus on how to contain and detect errors before they reach a patient.” 

Officials with Cook and U of I hospitals say they have taken a number of steps to improve patient safety after they more thoroughly researched incidents in which patients are harmed.

Asked to compare their malpractice records with peers in the private sector, officials with the two public hospitals said there is no reliable standard to measure. Representatives from Rush University Medical Center, University of Chicago Medical Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital declined to comment.

“It is very challenging for health care organizations to compare themselves to their peers when it comes to malpractice claims because hospitals typically keep that information very close to the vest,” said Krishna Das, chief quality officer for Cook hospitals.

>> Read this story at Crain’s Chicago Business

With the exception of very large settlements announced by plaintiffs’ law firms, malpractice payouts aren’t often made public. Even using publicly available data, comparing hospital settlements outside of Illinois can be difficult for a variety of reasons — including differences in hospital size, demographics and various state tort laws.

However, there are national comparisons on safety records.

The Leapfrog Group — a hospital research and rating organization founded by Boeing Co., General Electric Co. and other major U.S. employers — advocates for cutting costs in the health care system. It grades hospitals for safety twice a year, though it doesn’t factor in medical malpractice. 

For its most recent ratings, released in October, Leapfrog gave U of I and Stroger middling to low marks for overall patient safety. Stroger received a “C” and U of I a “D” in its most recent Hospital Safety Grade report, which rated more than 2,600 hospitals. The twice-yearly grades represent declines — as recently as the spring of 2013, both hospitals received safety grades of “B.”

University of Chicago and Rush recently received “A” grades from Leapfrog and Northwestern was given a “B.” U of I was one of only 157 hospitals to earn a “D” in the recent Leapfrog survey.

In addition to steps taken to catch errors, hospitals are being encouraged by the U.S. government and patient groups to own up to mistakes immediately after they are made. It’s one of the practices patient advocates such as the Malizzos espouse. Quick resolutions of serious or fatal errors can spare families from additional grief, and helps establish trust. 

Medical malpractice graphic

“If you go to court it could be tied up for five, six years and you have to constantly relive that,” Barbara Malizzo said. “And it’s hard when you lose a child.”

In recent years, U of I patient safety officials have said the hospital placed an emphasis on apologizing for medical mistakes shortly after errors occur. Yet some patients and their families spend years battling in court to prove severe injuries or deaths were the cause of negligence.

The BGA’s review of court settlements found the two taxpayer-funded hospital systems poured enormous amounts of money and resources over many years to fight lawsuits that ultimately ended in multimillion-dollar payouts. U of I, for instance, paid nearly $4 million to at least seven private law firms since 2012. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office usually  represented Stroger in malpractice cases.

When settlements are reached, hospitals or doctors named in lawsuits generally don’t admit they made mistakes. Some settlements are entered into after jury verdicts with defense lawyers for the hospitals and medical staff agree not to appeal the court decisions.

Resolution can take years

For injured patients and their families, compensation for mistakes can take an especially long time when multiple doctors are involved.

Juan Avila and his wife Rosa filed a lawsuit in 2010 against multiple doctors, including some from U of I. 

For four years, doctors had examined a lump on Juan Avila’s thigh, court documents show. When a specialist at U of I tested a sample of the growth and determined it wasn’t cancerous, Avila’s wife and two children were relieved, according to the family’s lawyer.

Then a subsequent test a little more than a year later determined Avila did indeed have cancer and that the earlier diagnosis may have prevented him from receiving timely and effective treatment, according to documents in Avila’s  lawsuit.

Medical malpractice graphic

When the case finally went to trial last May, Avila was too sick to attend, his lawyer Bryan Hofeld said. His cancer is no longer treatable, Hofeld said.

A Cook County jury awarded Avila and his wife $10 million, Hofeld said. U of I officials agreed not to appeal and settled after the trial for $9.3 million.

Dr. Andre Kajdacsy-Balla, the U of I specialist named in the settlement, said in an interview with the BGA that he made no mistakes testing the tissue sample because there was no cancer present. The tissue, which was extracted by someone else, must have been removed outside the tumor, said Kajdacsy-Balla, who is a pathologist.

“There was no misdiagnosis,” he said referring to his part of the biopsy process.

Kajdacsy-Balla noted a number of doctors examined Avila over a period of years. If a mistake was made, it was the fault of another doctor, he said. Under the settlement neither U of I nor the doctor admit blame.

“I could’ve said before everything started, ‘I made a big mistake here — let’s settle this,’” the doctor said in an interview. “But I didn’t make a big mistake.”

In some cases, the patients don’t live to see the outcome of their cases.

In 2008, cancer patient Wendy Cash of Rockford brought a lawsuit against Stroger, alleging doctors were negligent during treatment of an infection, a condition that led to the amputation of her left leg.

After years fighting the suit, Cook County settled the case for $2.4 million in February 2013, a little more than three years after Cash died.

In 2005, Maria Martinez of Chicago took her daughter, Ashley, to U of I for heart surgery. The now 12-year-old girl was born with a heart defect and her surgery required a specialist. But during a follow-up procedure, the child had a stroke that left her blind and unable to use her arms or legs.

Four years later, Martinez filed a lawsuit. Lawyers for the mother accused the doctor and nurse of negligence, an accusation that led to back and forth finger pointing between two defendants.

“Everybody agreed that somebody was negligent,” said Martinez’s lawyer Craig Mannarino. “As we get nearer and nearer to trial the question becomes not whether there was negligence, but who.”

Initially, U of I officials wouldn’t help identify the nurse involved in the procedure, according to Mannarino. In a recent interview with the BGA, the nurse, Elizabeth Robertson, said “definitely, I did not” make a mistake.

The doctor, Chawki El-Zein, didn’t return calls seeking comment. Neither he nor Robertson admit blame for the incident.

In February of this year, almost 11 years after Ashley’s procedure, university officials settled with Maria Martinez for $10 million.

“They fought tooth and nail all the way up until the end,” Mannarino said of U of I’s defense.

This story has been updated to reflect that U of I settled a 2010 case involving patient Juan Avila.

Madison Hopkins rejoined the newsroom in April 2023. Before returning, she was the health accountability reporter for The Kansas City Beacon, where she collaborated with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network to investigate Missouri's oversight of sheltered workshops for adults with disabilities.

Originally from Southern California, Madison moved to Chicago to earn her master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She initially joined the Better Government Association in 2016, where she investigated Chicago's recycling program failures, the absence of regulatory enforcement at Illinois nuclear power plants and bureaucratic failures in Chicago's building code enforcement system that contributed to dozens of fatal fires.