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Misdiagnosis of Cancer

Medical errors leading to malpractice litigation generally stems from two root causes: a health-care provider choosing the wrong method of care or a health-care provider choosing the right method of care but carrying it out incorrectly. The former is particularly relevant when a health-care provider makes a misdiagnosis.

Most hospitals have faced litigation related to misdiagnosis at one time or another. For example, Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore was involved in suit regarding the misdiagnosis of cancer. The decedent in this case was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent radiation treatment as result. It was later determined that he did not, in fact, have prostate cancer. Prior to the institution of a medical malpractice lawsuit, he died of unrelated causes, and a representative of his estate (his wife) brought a medical malpractice action against both the physician and Mercy Medical Center to recover damages for the emotional distress associated with his misdiagnosis. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City initially granted the physician and hospital’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case. However, on appeal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed and remanded the decision back to the trial court. A copy the judicial opinion regarding the case can be found here.

Of particular note is that the Court of Special Appeals decided that the emotional distress associated with being misdiagnosed with cancer was compensable within the “physical injury rule.” This particular rule stems from negligence law and states that if physical injury is capable of “objective determination,” it is compensable. Objective determination means that the evidence must provide enough detail that a jury has a basis for quantifying the injury so that damages may be awarded. Also, usually evidence has to come from more than just solely the victim in order for the claim to be successful. Finally, it’s important to note that there is no “threshold level” of severity that must be reached for emotional injury to be compensable.

In this case, there were three sources that evidenced the decedent’s emotional distress. First, there was the testimony of the doctor that the decedent went to after he learned that his diagnosis of cancer was wrong. Next, was the testimony of the decedent himself who had given a deposition prior to his death. Third, and finally, the testimony of the decedent’s wife was very helpful testimony as she was able to articulate her husband’s suffering associated with being misdiagnosed with cancer. Ultimately, the Court of Special Appeals found that the decedent’s distress came within the physical injury rule and was compensable.