The medical malpractice lawsuit of Hunt v. Pelczar, which arose out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, concerned Hunt, the 41 year old male plaintiff. At the advice of his family physician, the plaintiff underwent a biopsy of a mole on his back in 1995. The biopsy slide was prepared by the defendant laboratory and sent to the defendant pathology group for interpretation. The defendant pathologist read the biopsy slide and reported a benign lesion.
Approximately four years later, in 1999, the plaintiff discovered a lump under his arm while showering. He was then diagnosed with malignant melanoma, which had metastasized to the lymph nodes, brain and other organs of his body. At the time of trial, the plaintiff's doctors reported that the plaintiff's condition was terminal and that he had no chance of surviving another three years. The plaintiff's expert testified that, had the melanoma been reported at the time of the original biopsy in 1995, a wide excision would have been performed. The wide excision would have dramatically increased the plaintiff's chance of surviving the disease, according to the plaintiff's expert. The plaintiff was employed as a computer operator in a factory. He was married with one child in college and another child in high school.
The defendant pathologist admitted liability but stressed that a second biopsy taken in 1999 from the identical spot as the original biopsy (in 1995) showed no residual cancer cells. The defendant maintained that either the plaintiff's cancer had metastasized before the date of the 1995 biopsy or the cancer originated from another site, i.e. the defendant argued that although he made a mistake, his negligence did not cause any harm.
After a five-day trial, the jury found for the plaintiff in the amount of $ 5,175,823. The award included $ 2,000,000 in pain and suffering, $ 2,175,823 in economic damages and $ 1,000,000 to the plaintiff's wife for her loss of consortium. A high/low agreement in the amount of $ 3,750,000/$ 750,000 capped the plaintiff's recovery to $ 3,750,000. The defendant offered $ 1,000,000 to settle the case during jury deliberations.
The defendant pathologist and his professional group pointed to the lack of residual cancer cells at the site of the biopsy in presenting its defense on causation. The defendant maintained either the cancer had metastasized prior to the date of the biopsy - which would mean that the plaintiff's medical course could not have been changed. Or, the cancer originated from another site, which made the misreading of the original biopsy irrelevant. However, the jury did not accept the somewhat complex causation defense. The lack of another site which could account for the origin of the cancer may have played a significant role in the jury's ultimate decision in this regard. Members of the jury spoke with attorneys subsequent to the verdict and indicated that they believed the lack of clear margins on the pathology slide to be significant. The plaintiff argued that there should be a one-centimeter margin around the melanoma and the fact that one side of the specimen went to the edge of the slide created a presumption that some of the cancer cells had been left at the site, causing the recurrence which surfaced four years later.
I will discuss the current guidelines for diagnosis and treatment of suspected melanoma in a future post.
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