Medical Verdicts

Failure to document treatment refusal proves costly . . . Enlarging uterus goes uninvestigated . . . more

Author and Disclosure Information

The cases in this column are selected by the editors of The Journal of Family Practice from Medical Malpractice: Verdicts, Settlements & Experts, with permission of the editor, Lewis Laska ( The information about the cases presented here is sometimes incomplete; pertinent details of a given situation therefore may be unavailable. Moreover, the cases may or may not have merit. Nevertheless, these cases represent the types of clinical situations that typically result in litigation.


When following CT guidelines isn’t enough

AN 86-YEAR-OLD MAN ON WARFARIN FAINTED AND FELL while baby-sitting his great-grandchildren. He had transient neurologic symptoms after collapsing but appeared normal by the time paramedics arrived. He was taken by private vehicle to the hospital, where an emergency department (ED) physician examined him. After tests for a myocardial infarction revealed normal enzymes, electrocardiogram, and chest radiograph, the patient was discharged home.

He returned to the hospital the following day and underwent a computed tomography (CT) scan, which showed a large cerebral hemorrhage. He died soon afterward.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The patient should have had a CT scan during the first ED visit. A scan at that visit would have found the hemorrhage in time to save the patient’s life.

THE DEFENSE No discussion with family members about a blow to the head or head trauma occurred, and a CT scan wasn’t requested. The patient didn’t meet criteria for a head scan. Even if a scan had been done at the initial visit, it might not have revealed the bleed. Moreover, the patient’s age decreased the likelihood that earlier detection would have changed the outcome.

VERDICT Confidential Utah settlements. The hospital settled for a nominal sum early in the litigation process; the physician settled for a confidential amount immediately before trial.

COMMENT Even when clear guidelines for imaging exist, taking care to weigh extenuating circumstances—in this case, that the patient was on warfarin—is critical.

Failure to document treatment refusal proves costly

A 15-YEAR-OLD BOY lost consciousness at home on Halloween and needed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. When paramedics arrived on the scene, they found the boy conscious and breathing, so they left. The boy, who had a history of drug abuse, died 8 hours later of anoxic encephalopathy caused by cocaine and opiate intoxication.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The paramedics were negligent in failing to evaluate the boy’s condition properly and transport him to a hospital.

THE DEFENSE The paramedics left without assessing the boy because he and his father said they didn’t want or need medical help. (The paramedics neglected to obtain signed refusal of treatment forms.)

VERDICT $5.1 million Illinois verdict.

COMMENT Here is a $5 million verdict that hinges on the completion of forms for refusal of treatment, a remarkable reminder of the importance of documentation.

Enlarging uterus goes uninvestigated

AT AN ANNUAL GYNECOLOGIC EXAMINATION, a woman’s physician noted that her uterus had enlarged since her last visit and described it as “top size” in the chart. At the patient’s next annual exam 21 months later, the uterus had grown to 14 weeks’ gestational size.

Ten months after that, when the woman returned to her physician complaining of abdominal discomfort, her uterus was larger than at the previous examination. The physician advised her to consider a hysterectomy.

About 2 months later, the patient went to the doctor again because of increasing pelvic pressure. Her uterus was 18 to 20 weeks’ gestational size. The physician ordered an ultrasound, which showed a large mass on each ovary and no fibroids or masses within the uterus. Magnetic resonance imaging confirmed the ultrasound findings.

The doctor referred the woman to an oncological gynecologist. She subsequently underwent an abdominal hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy and bilateral periaortic lymph node dissection. The pathology report described ovarian cancer with an ominous prognosis.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The plaintiff alleged that the physician was negligent for failing to order testing when he first noticed the abnormal size of the uterus and at the patient’s subsequent visits. Failure to do so at the first exam and subsequent visits was negligent and allowed the cancer to advance instead of allowing for surgery and cure at an early stage.

THE DEFENSE No information about the defense is available.

VERDICT $650,000 Maryland settlement.

COMMENT It’s never a good policy to ignore a changing physical exam without good documentation, including a clear discussion of medical decision making.

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