Medical Verdicts

Inadequate evaluation of a mole has costly consequences

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.


Inadequate evaluation of a mole has costly consequences

A 53-year-old woman went to her physician for treatment of a mole on her upper right arm, which she stated had grown and changed color. The physician burned it off without conducting a biopsy or follow-up. Fifteen months later, the patient returned to her physician because the scar was raised with small bumps. He referred her to a surgeon, who diagnosed malignant melanoma (Clark’s level V), with a satellite lesion but negative lymph nodes. The patient underwent surgery and adjuvant interferon-alpha therapy, which caused significant adverse effects.

The patient now has anxiety related to fears of recurrence or death, and must undergo regular positron emission tomography and computed tomography scans to evaluate her for recurrence.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The melanoma should have been diagnosed at the patient’s initial presentation. If it had been diagnosed at that time, the patient would have had an 85% to 90% chance of survival, but because it wasn’t, her survival rate dropped to 60%.

THE DEFENSE No information about the defense is available.

VERDICT $750,000 Virginia settlement.

COMMENT When there is any doubt—by patient or physician—cut it out and send it out (for biopsy).

A higher index of suspicion for PE could have been lifesaving

A 37-year-old morbidly obese man was recovering in a rehabilitation facility from spinal surgery performed 2 weeks earlier. On the day he was to be discharged, he was transported by ambulance to the emergency department (ED) complaining of “a syncopal episode” with weakness, lightheadedness, dizziness, and sweatiness. This was followed by a second episode with similar symptoms. The patient had no wheezes or rales and his heart rhythm was normal, with no murmurs or gallop. In the ED his pulse rose from 94 to 116 and his blood pressure (BP) rose from 106/82 to 145/102. An electrocardiogram (EKG) was abnormal.

The ED physician felt the likelihood of PE was low, despite the fact that the patient was obese and had recent back surgery and an abnormal EKG. The ED physician felt that the likelihood of pulmonary embolism (PE) was low; he suspected, instead, that it was “likely vagal syncope.” The patient returned to the rehab facility, stayed overnight, and was discharged the next day. Two days later, he became short of breath, passed out, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. Autopsy revealed the cause of death was pulmonary thromboemboli from deep vein thrombosis.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The ED physician failed to rule out PE, which should have been considered because of the patient’s obesity, recent back surgery, immobilization, syncope, tachycardia, elevated BP, and abnormal EKG.

THE DEFENSE No information about the defense is available.

VERDICT $1.25 million Massachusetts settlement.

COMMENT Why the physician decided that this patient, who died of a PE, was at low risk for one is puzzling. I count at least 4 risk factors for PE: obesity, postoperative status, abnormal EKG, and tachycardia.

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