In its decision filed on January 15, 2016, the Court of Appeals of Indiana (“Appellate Court”) reversed the trial court’s granting summary judgment in favor of the medical malpractice defendant, noting “that medical malpractice cases are rarely appropriate for disposal by summary judgment” and holding that the plaintiff’s treating oncologist’s testimony, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, was sufficient to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant family medicine physician’s alleged negligence was the proximate cause of the injuries and damages complained of by the plaintiff, which injuries and damages include additional aggressive and expensive medical treatments and procedures that would have been unnecessary had the medical malpractice defendant complied with the applicable standard of care. The Appellate Court stated, “[b]ased upon the record before us, we consciously choose to err on the side of letting this case proceed to trial on the merits, rather than risk short-circuiting a meritorious claim.”
The Plaintiff’s Alleged Facts
The plaintiff was a new patient of the defendant family medicine physician when she saw her on October 1, 2008, at which time the defendant physician drew blood from the plaintiff to send for testing. The results of the blood test showed that the plaintiff had an elevated white blood cell count of 14.8 but the results were never communicated to the plaintiff and the defendant physician did not monitor the plaintiff with any concerns for cancer.
On November 22, 2009, the plaintiff saw another physician who drew blood from the plaintiff, which showed that the plaintiff’s white blood cell count was highly elevated at 36. That physician referred the plaintiff to an oncologist who, due to the urgency of her medical presentation, ordered a bone marrow biopsy the next day and diagnosed the plaintiff with mantel cell lymphoma, a very serious form of cancer. The oncologist told the plaintiff and her family members that she had six to eight weeks to live.
The oncologist recommended aggressive treatment and the plaintiff immediately began R-CHOP chemotherapy along with Rituxan immunotherapy, requiring that a port be placed in her chest to receive chemotherapy. The oncologist eventually received pathology reports that revealed that the plaintiff was suffering from lymphoproliferative disorder, which is a low-grade lymphoma and is a much less serious form of cancer.
In May 2013, the plaintiff filed a medical malpractice claim against the defendant family medicine physician alleging that the defendant’s failure to communicate to her the results of the initial blood test resulted in a thirteen-month delay in diagnosis which caused her to undergo additional treatments and procedures which would not have been necessary had her condition been properly diagnosed in 2008, and that she suffered permanent injuries and damages including but not limited to lost time for end-of-life planning and emotional distress.
As required by Indiana’s medical malpractice law, the plaintiff submitted her Indiana medical malpractice claim to a medical review panel, which unanimously found in favor of her as to liability but against her as to causation, stating, “the evidence supports the conclusion that the [defendant] failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care as charged in the complaint; however, the conduct complained of was not a factor of the resultant damages.”
The defendant family medicine physician filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial judge granted, despite the plaintiff’s submission of a portion of her oncologist’s deposition testimony in which he stated that if the plaintiff had been appropriately monitored and tested early on, before he ever saw her, he would have had a much better idea of what her disease process was and he likely would not have started chemotherapy with the urgency that he did, and that he would probably have treated her with Rituxan alone and not included chemotherapy (if the plaintiff had been treated with Rituxan alone she probably would not have had a port placed). Furthermore, if the plaintiff had never started R-CHOP, she would not have needed two full years of Rituxan immunotherapy as maintenance following the chemotherapy but instead she likely would have received a regimen of Rituxan alone once per week for four weeks with only the potential of needing Rituxan again at some point in the future. However, the oncologist testified that any alleged delay in obtaining a correct diagnosis of the plaintiff’s disease did not affect her prognosis or life expectancy.
The Appellate Court held that the plaintiff had met her burden to survive summary judgment on the issue of causation: her oncologist’s testimony was sufficient to rebut the medical review panel’s opinion as to causation and created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the defendant family medicine physician’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s alleged injuries and damages, including unnecessary medical treatments and procedures, as well the accompanying emotional distress caused by the delayed diagnosis.
Source Sorrells v. Reid-Renner, M.D.
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