Medical Verdicts

Not your garden variety neck pain ... Untimely death blamed on undiagnosed PE ... More

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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.


Not your garden variety neck pain

PERSISTENT BILATERAL NECK PAIN so severe that he couldn’t sit down brought a man to the emergency department (ED), where he was given ketorolac and diazepam. About an hour later, he said that the pain was better and was discharged with a diagnosis of neck strain and spasm and instructions to see his primary care physician if the pain persisted or worsened.

Four days later, the patient went to his primary care physician complaining of neck pain radiating down both arms, numbness in the right thumb, fever, chills, dysuria, and myalgia in his legs. The doctor observed decreased range of motion of the neck in all directions and diagnosed likely prostatitis. He ordered co-trimoxazole (trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole), a nonemergent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and physical therapy.

Fourteen hours after the doctor visit, the patient went back to the ED in a wheelchair. An emergency MRI showed epidural disease up and down the cervical spine and extending into the thoracic spine. An epidural abscess with spinal cord compression was diagnosed and decompression and evacuation surgery with spinal fusion was performed.

After several weeks in the hospital, the patient was referred to rehabilitation for partial quadriplegia. He has no use of his legs and very limited use of his hands and fingers. He’s confined to a wheelchair and needs help with most activities of daily living.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM When the patient visited his primary care physician, he had a classic presentation of a spinal abscess and should have undergone an emergent MRI, which would have revealed the abscess and allowed treatment with antibiotics and surgery before permanent damage occurred.

THE DEFENSE The patient’s symptoms weren’t a typical presentation of spinal abscess. There was no way the physician could have known what would happen the next day.

VERDICT $3 million Massachusetts settlement.

COMMENT Yes, there are zebras among the horses. We have to be vigilant to diagnose the rare serious cause of common problems such as neck pain. The combination of neck pain, patchy neurologic findings, signs of infection, and bladder symptoms should have raised red flags.

Untimely death blamed on undiagnosed PE

A 28-YEAR-OLD MAN went to the emergency department (ED) complaining of low-grade fever, nonproductive cough, and dizziness for 2 days. He also had tachycardia and significant hypoxia. An ED physician who saw the patient an hour after his arrival noted that he complained of weakness, shortness of breath, and light-headedness. The differential diagnosis included pneumonia, congestive heart failure, and pulmonary embolism.

After reviewing an electrocardiogram, chest radiograph, and laboratory studies, the ED doctor diagnosed pneumonia and renal insufficiency. The patient was admitted to the hospital, then transferred to another hospital about 8 hours later. He wasn’t evaluated by a physician when he was admitted to the second hospital.

About 5 hours after admission, the patient got out of bed and collapsed in the presence of his wife. A code was called, but the patient never regained consciousness and died about an hour and a half later. An autopsy established a pulmonary embolism as the cause of death.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The doctors were negligent in failing to diagnose and treat the pulmonary embolism. Proper treatment would have allowed the patient to survive.

THE DEFENSE There was no negligence; heparin therapy wouldn’t have prevented the patient’s death.

VERDICT $6.1 million Maryland verdict.

COMMENT It isn’t enough to think of pulmonary embolism; a prompt definitive diagnostic work-up and timely treatment are key to preventing such a catastrophic outcome.

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