Law & Medicine

Don’t Take the Fall With Head Injuries

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In the early morning hours of June 10, 2009, a 77-year-old man who had been undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma took sleep medication. He then fell down a flight of stairs in his split-level home.

The patient sustained a laceration to his scalp but returned to bed and waited until later that morning to call his internist for an appointment. Later that day, the physician placed 11 sutures for the scalp laceration and performed a neurologic examination; he did not note any abnormalities. The patient complained of back pain, so the physician ordered a back x-ray, which revealed a TI2 fracture that had occurred from the fall. No further treatment was provided for the scalp injury, except removal of the stitches about a week later.

Six days after the fall and doctor visit, the patient’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly, with noted slurred speech and loss of consciousness. He was transported to an emergency department, where CT revealed a massive subdural hematoma. An immediate craniotomy was performed. However, on June 27, 2009, the patient died as a result of the brain bleed.

His estate filed suit against the physician and his practice, alleging medical malpractice and violations in the standard of care. The estate alleged that the standard of care required the physician to obtain a CT scan and that, had one been performed, it would have revealed a small subdural hematoma in time for it to have been successfully treated (ie, before the massive second related bleed). The estate’s theory of the case did not rest on the presentation of clinical symptoms. A medical expert who testified for the estate stated that the subdural hematoma began at the time of the fall.

The defense denied any violations in the standard of care. The physician contended that the patient had presented with no symptoms other than a head laceration, and there were no criteria for ordering CT. Further, the defense asserted that the patient was symptom free for 6 days post-fall. According to the defense, the patient experienced a sudden arterial bleed that was not caused by the fall and would not have been revealed on CT ordered at the time of initial presentation, because it did not occur until 6 days later.


After a 10-day trial and 25 minutes’ deliberation, the jury returned a defense verdict.


The 25-minute deliberation suggests that terms such as “bridging veins” and “shearing injury” were unlikely bandied about in the jury room. The jury was likely dismissive of the plaintiff’s claim owing to his cancer diagnosis, and perhaps rightly so. But if we eliminate the multiple myeloma diagnosis, the jury might have decided differently.

Continue to: The defendant physician...


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