The 13-month-old son of a young Army soldier spent 22 days in an intensive care and burn unit in 2015 after a botched surgery ignited a fireball that left second- and third-degree burns across the boy’s face and neck.
The boy, now 5 years old and identified only as B.J.P., was undergoing surgery to remove a benign cyst from near his left eye at Madigan Army Medical Center, on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, according to court documents obtained by Army Times.
Four years after the surgery, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton hit the government with a $12.3 million verdict, according to court records. The court concluded that Madigan Army Medical Center personnel “failed to exercise the degree of care, skill, and learning expected of a reasonably prudent health care provider."
The legal team was satisfied with the judgment, Gemma Zanowski — an attorney at Evergreen Personal Injury Counsel who helped to represent the family of B.J.P. — told Army Times.
“We think it’s a fair judgment that accounts for the extent of this little boy’s harm and losses and will give him support and opportunity going forward in his future and make sure his needs are taken care of," Zanowski said.
During the surgery, Army pediatric surgeon Dr. John Horton and Army anesthesiologist Dr. Phillip Cuenca failed to communicate with each other about the oxygen levels being administered as well as the use of an electrocautery device, rather than a scalpel, to remove the cyst tissue, court documents stated.
After activating the device, the enriched oxygen environment was ignited, causing a surgical fire. The surgical team should have allowed the excess oxygen to dissipate prior to using the electrocautery device, and should have better communicated with one another, according to the court findings.
The judge wrote that “the surgical fire was preventable.”
“The treatment providers doused saline on B.J.P.’s face,” the documents read. “The surgical mask, which had fallen to the floor in flames, was extinguished with water.”
B.J.P. was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for further treatment of the injuries.
Since the incident, B.J.P has been in and out of hospitals for various surgeries and other treatments related to the fire, and is expected to have additional surgeries and medical care throughout his life, the family’s attorneys argued. After his wounds fully closed and his condition stabilized, the boy underwent four surgical procedures in a two-year period.
The boy’s family filed claims against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and the government admitted fault.
“The United States deeply regrets that it negligently caused the September 2, 2015, operating room fire that resulted in B.J.P.’s physical injuries and sincerely apologizes for the pain and suffering that resulted from this very unfortunate incident,” U.S. attorney Whitney Passmore wrote in a May 30 brief.
The government does have the opportunity to appeal the judge’s decision, but there is no indication that will occur.
“My hope would be that they pay this and let the family move forward,” Zanowski said.
The public affairs office at Madigan Army Medical Center said the hospital had no comment. Officials would not provide details on the status of the pediatric surgeon and anesthesiologist who were found to have made the mistakes that caused B.J.P.'s burns. Army Times attempted to reach them for comment.
While the government admitted fault, and agreed that B.J.P.’s life care plan should be fully funded, it disputed some of the non-economic damages the family’s attorneys brought forward. Non-economic damages included pain, suffering, mental anguish, loss of capacity to enjoy life, disability, disfigurement, inconvenience, humiliation and other non-tangible harms that are difficult to quantify.
“Injuries of this magnitude always have a ripple effect and B.J.P.’s damages have deeply affected both his parents and changed their relationship with their son — not the amount of love they have for B.J.P. — but how they perceive his place in the world, how they think about their interactions with their son, what they see when they look at him,” Zanowski wrote in her May 30 trial brief.
The parents of B.J.P. are now divorced, with the father still serving the remainder of his Army contract at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the mother living on the East Coast. The government argued in its trial brief that the divorce was not related to the injuries their child suffered.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.