Judge rules salmonella lawsuit against Doctors Medical Center can proceed

kcarlson@modbee.comSeptember 3, 2014 

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Sheila Vega is seeking damages from Doctors Medical Center after daughter Skylin, 2, was infected with salmonella there as a newborn. Attorneys for the hospital counter that Skylin most likely was infected by her mother or other family members, not hospital nurses. Photographed in Salida Calif., on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

ANDY ALFARO — aalfaro@modbee.com Buy Photo

A Santa Clara County judge rejected a motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that a salmonella outbreak occurred two years ago at Doctors Medical Center of Modesto.

Superior Court Judge William Elfving found there was conflicting evidence from experts on how Skylin Vega of Salida contracted salmonella at the Modesto hospital in April 2012. The lawsuit filed by her mother, Sheila Vega, may proceed to a civil trial unless attorneys for Doctors persuade the judge to reconsider his tentative ruling issued Wednesday.

Sheila Vega claims her newborn daughter and other babies were infected with salmonella in the neonatal intensive care and pediatric units.

She is seeking more than $50,000 for medical expenses and up to $250,000 for Skylin’s pain and suffering – the highest amount allowed under California law for malpractice lawsuits. In a second ruling, Elfving disallowed Sheila Vega from seeking damages for her own emotional distress.

“I think what the court did was right,” said Attorney Matthew Haberkorn, who represents Vega. “The experts differed on the cause of Skylin’s infection. I guess we will find out who is more credible.”

Attorneys for Doctors did not a return a message seeking comment.

In its motion, the hospital submitted an expert’s statement that Sheila Vega most likely infected the infant during childbirth or breast-feeding. The plaintiff’s expert, pediatrician Janine Jason, countered that infants less than a month old rarely contract salmonella and that it’s virtually impossible for the bacteria to spread through a hospital nursery if standards are followed.

Jason suggested that hospital personnel could have spread the bacteria when they prepared feedings for the premature infants in the NICU. She noted that some medical records indicate Skylin was breast-fed, while other records say she was not.

Vega’s attorney filed the case in Santa Clara County because infant formula maker Abbott Laboratories was one of the original defendants. The company has production facilities in the Bay Area.

Vega’s family first believed contaminated infant formula was the source of the infections at Doctors. In 2012, Stanislaus County public health officials reported that two infants in the hospital had been infected with the salmonella Newport strain, which resulted in a local and state investigation.

Abbott was dropped from the lawsuit after showing that it supplied a sterile product to the Modesto hospital. Haberkorn has argued that at least three or four infants contracted salmonella at Doctors, possibly including a premature infant whose death was attributed to an intestinal disorder. The attorney added the hospital’s parent company, Tenet Healthcare, as a defendant last week.

Salmonella is a foodborne illness with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain. An infection entering the bloodstream may damage the joints, heart and other organs.

Skylin was born six weeks premature at the hospital on April 9, 2012. A stool culture taken a week later tested positive for salmonella, but the infection did not respond to antibiotics. She was transferred in late April to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, where a second course of antibiotics failed. The girl was later diagnosed as a chronic carrier of salmonella.

Vega has said members of the Salida household have lived in fear of being exposed to the dangerous bacteria.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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