Judge awards $15M to family of brain-damaged Snoqualmie girl

SEATTLE -- A judge awarded more than $15 million Friday to the family of a Snoqualmie girl after finding that a miscommunication between doctors left her severely brain damaged.

The case is believed to be one of the largest medical malpractice awards in state history.

MacKenzie Briant, now 8-years old, was born with a congenital heart defect and had a heart transplant shortly after she was born, her family said. In 2008, when she came down with a respiratory infection, her mother called MacKenzie's doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital, where the transplant was done.

A cardiology fellow who answered the Briants' call consulted with MacKenzie's physician, Dr. Yuk Law. Law told the doctor not to recommend Afrin, an over-the-counter nasal decongestant, because it could put undue stress on the heart of a pediatric transplant patient, lawyers argued.

The doctor misunderstood Law's orders and recommended Afrin anyway, and the results were immediate - and devastating, a judge found.

"She had a cardiac arrest on the way home from the store," recalled MacKenzie's mother, Elaine. "It never crossed my mind, because I heard it from a cardiologist. Afrin is a decongestant and it made sense to me."

"I wish I would've never have given it to her," Briant recalled, wiping tears from her face. "She's never spoken again."

Paramedics rushed MacKenzie to the hospital, and doctors did their best to treat her. Her brain was still starved of oxygen, causing irreparable damage, her family said.

On Friday morning, Judge John Erlick ruled that "negligent advice" led to the girl being given nasal spray, which resulted in permanent injury, cutting her life span to 22 years. Erlick further said that the UW doctors had failed in their duties to communicate with one another, leading to the mistake.

After the hearing, an attorney for the university hugged Elaine Briant. Outside of court, he said the case had been hard on all parties involved.

"These are wonderful folks who've been through a very difficult time," said the attorney, Clarke Johnson. "This case was about what caused (MacKenzie's) deficits. Our experts concluded it was unrelated (to the Afrin). The judge disagreed, and we respect his judgment. It's a tough case."

State records show the doctor who recommended the decongestant to the Briants is no longer licensed to practice medicine in Washington state. Dr. Yuk Law, MacKenzie's transplant doctor, remains her physician.

The Briants' attorney said the case underscores the importance of communication among medical professionals.

"We see miscommunication problems periodically but I've never seen this devastating a result as a result of just missing one word," said Ralph Brindley, the Briants' lawyer.

MacKenzie's mother echoed those sentiments Friday, and said the money would be used to provide care for her daughter.

"We need to be very clear in orders. Even the smallest thing that sounds like its harmless might not be," Elaine said.

"Something like this just didn't have to happen. It didn't have to happen," she continued. "She survived a heart transplant. She's fought so hard. And to have this be her life it's just - it's heartbreaking."