Jury awards families $215,000 in lawsuit against Seattle Children’s Hospital

Feb 8, 2024, 8:24 PM | Updated: Feb 9, 2024, 2:03 pm

seattle childrens hospital...

Exterior of Seattle Children's Hospital (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

A King County jury has ruled Seattle Children’s Hospital is responsible for exposing two babies and an 11-year-old child to a deadly fungus during medical procedures and awarded the families of the children $215,000 to split..

It’s the first payout in a class action lawsuit involving more than 70 people and lasting more than three years. At least 14 Seattle Children’s patients have gotten sick from Aspergillus fungus infections since 2001. Seven of those patients died, according to the hospital.

None of the three children involved in this initial court proceeding were directly infected with the fungus. However, attorneys for the hospital acknowledged they had to undergo testing and take preventative medication after being exposed during surgery. According to court documents filed by the plaintiffs, the treatment had to be administered three times per day and included side effects like fever, rashes, nausea and vomiting.

During the two-week trial, the mother of one of the exposed infants testified she was never told about the treatment when it happened and had no way of knowing how her newborn daughter suffered. Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore (The Stritmatter Firm), the law firm representing the plaintiffs, claims 87 patients deemed at high risk of infection and serious illness were prescribed anti-fungal medications between December 2016 and November 2019.

Despite this, Seattle Children’s claimed the young patients were not harmed in any way.

Andrew Ackley, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, disagreed.

“This is about taking responsibility, even where children did not suffer the worst possible outcomes,” Ackley said after the verdict was announced Thursday. “This is part of the march toward full accountability and preventing this type of negligence from affecting any more families.”

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Aspergillus mold is considered fairly common and found both indoors and outdoors. Most people breathe in Aspergillus spores every day without getting sick. However, people with weakened immune systems or lung diseases are at a higher risk of developing health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When infections began adding up

The Stritmatter Firm alleges Seattle Children’s Hospital has had problems with the fungus since the 1990s, and building managers knew about contamination problems as early as 2005 and failed to fix them.

As evidence, attorneys pointed to an earlier lawsuit filed by Eugene and Clarissa Patnode on behalf of their daughter, who underwent surgery when she was 12 years old. The Patnodes argued the infection their daughter contracted left her with permanent brain damage. The case was settled confidentially in 2008.

The complaint claimed the hospital repeatedly engaged in “a cover-up designed to reassure its patients, doctors, nurses and the public that its premises were safe, when in fact they were not.”

Aspergillus infections began mounting in 2018 and 2019, prompting the hospital to take a second look at previous cases. Dr. Jeff Sperring, the CEO of Seattle Children’s, made a public admission acknowledging numerous patients had fallen ill due to the mold. He said at first, hospital staff did not detect it, or realize it was linked to the ventilation system.

“Looking back, we should have made the connection sooner,” he said at a news conference. “Simply put, we failed.”

The main operating rooms were shut down in 2019, first in May and again in November as the hospital installed new high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air filter systems.

Despite those measures, another child died from Aspergillus mold in February 2020. Five-month-old Elizabeth Hutt was infected after undergoing three heart surgeries at Seattle Children’s.

“The wonderful medical doctors and staff at Seattle Children’s Hospital worked hard and with compassion to save our baby’s life,” Elizabeth’s parents, Katie and Micah Hutt, said in a statement. “But her chances of recovering were taken away when an operating room infected her with Aspergillus mold. It grew inside of her, and she just could not beat it. She should never have suffered so much. We are torn up as we wait for answers from the administration as to why their building was allowed to put our baby and so many other children in harm’s way.”

Hospital fought against the release of public records

Despite admitting long-term Aspergillus contamination, Seattle Children’s fought against the release of public records regarding the hospital’s communications with the King County Board of Health and the Washington State Department of Health as lawsuits piled up. The hospital claimed its coordination with officials was part of its internal “quality improvement” committee and, therefore, privileged information. But a trial judge and, later, an appeals court disagreed.

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Seattle Children’s previously admitted negligence in 2022 for potentially exposing children to mold in the operating rooms. That year the hospital was ordered to pay $750,000 to the family of a 2-year-old who underwent brain surgery there and was subsequently infected, according to Ackley. The family initially sought $40 million in that case.

The children’s hospital again admitted responsibility for the contamination ahead of this latest proceeding.

“Our greatest priority is the health and safety of our patients,” Seattle Children’s said in a statement following the verdict Thursday.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Jury awards families $215,000 in lawsuit against Seattle Children’s Hospital