Local News

Teen Transplant Case Raises Key Legal Issues

Posted February 24, 2003

— The death of a teenager after two heart-lung transplants continues to raise questions of who is responsible. Although the transplant surgeon is affiliated with Duke, legal experts point out he works as an independent contractor, which raises the question of whether responsibility for the transplant error goes deeper.

Dick Taylor, chief executive officer of the Academy of Trial Lawyers, said the Jesica Santillian case takes the shroud off the usually secretive issue of medical malpractice.

"The fact that a doctor might be negligent and responsible doesn't necessarily mean that the hospital would be responsible," he said.

Jesica Santillan died after doctors gave her a second heart-lung transplant. The second procedure was necessary after Santillan received organs with the wrong blood type. Dr. James Jaggers, Santillan's transplant surgeon, said he takes responsibility for the organ mix-up.

"I hope that we, and others, can learn from this tragic mistake and move forward to make the process safer and available to more of those in need. To do otherwise would fail to properly honor Jesica and dishonor her memory," he said.

Considering Jaggers' admissions, various attorneys have told WRAL they expect any lawsuits and investigations to look for others who may have also made mistakes in the transplant mix-up.

"I heard Duke say that they were putting in new systems to keep this from happening. I didn't hear Duke say their systems had failed and they had responsibility for it," Taylor said.

Besides Duke, investigations could also focus on the roles of Carolina Donor Services and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Despite a computer system that is supposed to match donors to recipients, UNOS has admitted that did not happen with Santillan.

Investigators with the state Health and Human Services Department are now trying to figure out how the organs still got to Jesica without the blood type match. With the spotlight still shining on the Santillan case, Taylor hopes state and federal lawmakers will think twice about tort reform that would limit lawsuit amounts.

"It's time we focus public attention on safety in our health care system and not on taking away the rights of victims," he said.

Santillan's attorneys said their pending immigration status does not impact their right to sue. In addition to a possible lawsuit, Duke also faces regulatory investigations. State Facility Services investigators were on the scene last week to figure out whether the mix-up could effect Duke's eligibility for federal money.

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