Risk Management



Wrongful Death Claims: Tragic, Complex, and Expensive

Paul Weber, JD, OMIC Vice President of Risk Management/Legal

Digest, Summer 2012

Wrongful death claims are some of the most tragic, complex, and expensive malpractice litigation that OMIC handles. They are tragic because a grieving spouse or, perhaps, a bereft parent, claims the insured’s negligence actually caused the death of their loved one. These lawsuits are legally complex because they usually involve multiple plaintiffs (family members) suing multiple defendants who are alleged to have caused or contributed to the death of the loved one. In wrongful death cases against physicians, the plaintiff must still prove all the elements of a medical negligence case, i.e., duty, breach, causation, and damages. These cases can become very expensive, very quickly, as numerous expert witnesses are retained by both sides to prove or disprove whose negligence, if any, caused the patient’s death.

Lending to the complexity of these lawsuits, almost all states have statutes that actually provide for two types of legal actions, often combined in one lawsuit, that may be brought against a physician who allegedly has caused the death of a patient. One action is a claim for wrongful death and the other is a survivor or survival action. The wrongful death action is brought by close family members (e.g., spouse, parent, child) to recover damages for loss of value of the decedent’s future earnings/contributions and personal services, loss of the decedent’s society and companionship, and pain and suffering arising from the death of the patient. A survival action (somewhat misnamed, since it is only available after someone has died) is pursued by the estate of the deceased patient to recover damages sustained by the decedent prior to death, such as medical expenses, loss of earnings, and pain and suffering. As stated above, the two actions are often combined into what will be referred to in this article as a “wrongful death” claim.

Wrongful death claims are relatively rare against ophthalmologists. They account for only 2.4% of all claims against OMIC insureds and 2.6% of claims against ophthalmologists in the Physician Insurers Association of America Data Sharing Project1 database. This relatively small percentage is quite notable because over 24% of claims against all specialties combined in the PIAA database involved the death of the patient. The vast majority of death-related claims in the PIAA database arise from pregnancy, malignant neoplasms of the female breast, symptoms involving the abdomen/pelvis, and acute myocardial infarct—conditions that seldom involve ophthalmologists.

There is little difference, however, in the average indemnity payment in wrongful death cases. According to the PIAA data, the average is $236,000 for ophthalmologists and $243,000 for all specialties combined. OMIC’s average indemnity for a wrongful death claim is somewhat higher than PIAA’s at $295,000 and is nearly twice the $156,000 average for OMIC’s non-death-related claims.

The two most frequent—and expensive—allegations against ophthalmologists in wrongful death lawsuits are improper performance of treatment or procedure and failure to diagnose (see Frequency and Severity chart below). This issue’s Closed Claim Study and Risk Management Hotline provide helpful risk management suggestions to minimize liability risk related to improper performance of surgery/procedure and related emergencies that occur in the hospital, ASC, or office procedure area. Wrongful death cases related to diagnostic error are quite different and frequently involve many providers, often over an extended period of time. In diagnostic-related cases, good documentation and communication among providers is often the best risk management practice to minimize adverse outcomes and the best defense if a lawsuit arises.

Case Study 1—Failure to Diagnose

One OMIC wrongful death lawsuit alleging diagnostic error involved an insured who saw the patient for complaints of swelling OU on January 2, 1995. The differential diagnosis was post-herpetic neuralgia versus sinusitis. The insured ordered a CT scan, which showed probable orbital lymphoma, and consulted with an oncologist and ENT specialist. Upon review of the CT scan, there was a discussion between the oncologist and ENT specialist about whether to get a biopsy. The patient was referred to a radiation oncologist, who began treatment of the left orbit and paranasal sinuses for presumed lymphoma without taking a biopsy. Although the insured testified that he was not involved in the decision to treat the mass or take a biopsy, the records and testimony of the ENT specialist and radiation oncologist indicated they had such conversations with him. The first oncologist had no specific recollection of any conversation with the insured regarding taking a biopsy.

On January 18, one week after radiation treatment started, the patient complained of swelling OU and was treated with prednisone and Tylenol. These symptoms were believed to be due to the radiation treatments. At a visit with the insured one month later on February 15, swelling was down, the eyes were quiet, and visually acuity was 20/20 OS. On February 28, when the patient was seen again by the insured, visual acuity in the left eye had decreased to 20/50 OS. The insured consulted with the oncologist; based on the CT scan, it appeared the lymphoma had regressed from the radiation. The patient was continued on steroids and warm compresses. On March 16, when the patient was seen again, swelling on the left side had increased, IOP was 38, and visual acuity was 20/80 OS. Again, the insured consulted the oncologist and adjusted the oral steroid dose. Two days later, swelling had decreased and IOP was 12 OS.

On April 1, the patient returned to the insured with reduced vision to light perception only OS. The left pupil was 4 mm and fixed. On April 2, a biopsy was taken using the transethmoidal approach and the patient was diagnosed with a fungal (Aspergillus) infection. The insured removed the patient’s left eye to help with treatment of the fungal infection. The patient died on May 21. An autopsy was conducted and the cause of death was listed as an Aspergillus infection. The fungus infection had caused the hematoma in the left frontal lobe, leading to cerebral edema and uncal herniation. There was no evidence of lymphoma at autopsy. The pathologist estimated the Aspergillus had been present in the cranial cavity anywhere from days to weeks.

The plaintiffs in this case were the widow of the patient and two adult children. They brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the insured, the oncologist, the radiation oncologist, and the ENT specialist. The plaintiffs’ theory was that the Aspergillus infection was present in January or February and should have been diagnosed via biopsy and treated at that time. The plaintiff experts testified that had a correct and timely diagnosis been made, the patient would have survived the Aspergillus infection. The plaintiff retained eight expert witnesses. The defendants hired a similar number of experts.

The key expert witness for the insured was a nationally recognized oculoplastics surgeon. He believed the clinical symptoms encountered were consistent with orbital lymphoma, as opposed to a fungal type infection. He felt the patient would have developed a fever in January if a fungus infection had been present at that time. The oral steroid treatment in March caused the periorbital edema to subside, but the steroids would have made the infection worse if it was present at that time. Therefore, it seemed probable to the defense expert that the patient did not develop the fungal infection until sometime in April.

There were some problems facing the insured’s defense. The differing recollections regarding the January decision not to do a biopsy and the insured’s lack of documentation regarding his exact role in treatment of the lymphoma weakened his case by linking him more closely to the plaintiffs’ main liability theory that a biopsy should have been done. Another weak point in the defense was that the insured had the most contact with the plaintiff from January through April. The plaintiff expert argued that the insured continued to treat the patient despite getting poor results rather than refer him to another specialist. The defense thought this was a specious argument as the insured had consulted with the oncologist but believed it might be persuasive to a jury. Moreover, because the case would be tried in a very “plaintiff-friendly” venue, defense counsel put the plaintiffs’ chances of prevailing at trial at 50% and estimated that a plaintiff verdict would range from $1,000,000 to $2,500,000. Other defense attorneys suggested it could go as high as $8,000,000.

OMIC had spent over $180,000 working up the case for trial and had a very experienced defense attorney with an excellent understanding of the clinical issues in the case. However, the consensus of the insured, defense counsel, and OMIC staff was that the clinical issues in this particular case were quite complex, and it was too risky to rely on a jury to understand the roles and duties of the multiple providers. It was felt that they would all be tarred with the same brush. With the insured’s consent, OMIC paid $250,000 to settle the case. The total combined payment from all defendants was $1,300,000.

Case Study 2—Failure to Diagnose

The most frequent type of treatment/procedure arising in a wrongful death claim is the “medical evaluation” and the most frequent type of practice focus is “comprehensive ophthalmologist.” One diagnostic error case against a comprehensive ophthalmologist performing a medical evaluation involved a 42-year-old man first seen by the insured in May 1997 for vision problems. He had been examined in November 1996 by another ophthalmologist, who performed a visual field test that was diagnostic for glaucoma. The patient was placed on medication. In May 1997, the patient’s primary care physician referred him to the insured, who diagnosed bilateral pterygia. The insured also performed a visual field test in July 1997 but made no notations regarding his impressions or any differences between his fields and those taken by the earlier ophthalmologist, despite having those records available to him. In October 1997, the insured removed the pterygia. Two and a half months after this surgery, the patient returned to his PCP complaining of severe headaches. His PCP felt the headaches were migraine-related, but shortly thereafter, the patient presented to the emergency room with excruciating headache pain. He was discharged without a conclusive diagnosis. The next morning, he was found unconscious and taken to the hospital where he expired the following day. An autopsy revealed that death was due to a pituitary tumor hemorrhage. The widow and three minor children sued the insured, the earlier ophthalmologist, the PCP, two emergency room physicians, and the hospital.

It was difficult to find an expert witness willing to testify on behalf of the insured. The ophthalmologist had consecutive visual fields that showed an evolving bitemporal hemianopsia. Close review of the formal visual fields show combined arcuate glaucomatous changes and bitemporal hemianopsia. Expert witnesses and consultants in the case described the visual fields as showing “classic” signs of a pituitary tumor. One consultant presented the visual fields to a group of ophthalmology residents. They all diagnosed an intracranial lesion. While the insured testified that he reviewed and compared the visual fields, there was no record or documentation to support this. Nor was there any communication to either the patient or the family physician regarding the test results or contemplated follow-up.

The emergency room physicians and hospital were dismissed from the case based upon a strong causation defense that, by the time the patient came to the emergency room, it would have been too late to operate anyway since surgery or radiation therapy are only effective before the lesion hemorrhages. The family practice physician settled for approximately $100,000 and the earlier ophthalmologist settled for about $110,000. With the consent of the insured, OMIC paid $790,000 to settle the case.

These two case studies involving diagnostic errors highlight the importance of careful documentation and communication with colleagues. Review, date, and sign test results before they are filed in the medical record. Discuss them in letters sent to referring physicians, and provide patients with copies of test results. Follow up on missing results and missed appointments. See www.omic.com for recommendations on “Noncompliance” for sample tracking systems and letters to patients.

TABLE 1 – OMIC and PIAA Wrongful Death Statistics

Wrongful Death Claims

OMIC                    PIAA – OPHTHALMOLOGY           PIAA – ALL SPECIALTIES

Percent of all claims                        2.4%                      2.6%                                                      24%

Percent with indemnity                 24%                        24%                                                        30%

Average indemnity                         $295,000              $236,000                                              $243,000

 

 

 

TABLE 2 – Allegations in OMIC Wrongful Death Claims

Allegation                                                                            Number               Number Paid     Total Indemnity

Diagnostic Failure                                                             29                           8                              $3,430,000.00

Surgery – Improper Performance                             24                           4                              $1,100,000.00

Treatment/Procedure – Improper Performance  19                           5                              $988,750.00

Miscellaneous                                                                   10                           2                              $99,999.00

TOTAL                                                                                  82                           19                           $5,618,749.00

TABLE 3 – Treatment/Procedures in OMIC Wrongful Death Claims

Treatment Procedure                                                    Number               Number Paid     Total Indemnity

Medical Evaluation                                                          20                           7                              $2,185,000.00

Retina                                                                                   22                           4                              $1,375,000.00

Miscellaneous                                                                   12                           3                              $908,749.00

Oculoplastic                                                                        12                           2                              $790,000.00

Cataract                                                                               10                           2                              $210,000.00

Glaucoma                                                                            6                              1                              $150,000.00

TOTAL                                                                                   82                           19                           $5,618,749.00

TABLE 4 – Practice Focus of OMIC Insureds involved Wrongful Death Claims

Practice Focus                                                                   Number               Number Paid     Total Indemnity

Comprehensive                                                                32                           7                              $2,308,750.00

Retina                                                                                   18                           5                              $1,750,000.00

Entity                                                                                    17                           5                              $669,999.00

Glaucoma                                                                            3                              1                              $150,000.00

Oculoplastic                                                                        6                              1                              $740,000.00

Other                                                                                    6                              0                              $0.00

TOTAL                                                                                  82                           19                           $5,618,749.00

(Endnotes)

1              The PIAA Data Sharing Project is the largest independent source of professional liability claims loss data in the world. Since 1985, 267,713 closed claims have been reported to the database, including 7,600 reported claims against ophthalmologists. OMIC does not submit data to the PIAA Data Sharing Project.

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