erie jury supports mans acquired brain injury claim versus hamot

A 50-year-old classical pianist from Erie won a substantial jury verdict last week in a medical malpractice lawsuit against Hamot Medical Center. A cancer misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis of an infection ultimately left the man with a debilitating brain injury.

The infection spread rapidly and caused substantial damage to large portion of the man’s brain. He now suffers from an impaired ability to speak and comprehend both spoken and written words as well as the loss of his ability to understand and appreciate music and math.

The Erie County jury found that hospital negligence by Hamot Medical Center, not the actions of the individual doctors involved, was responsible. They awarded the man $3.5 million to cover his future medical costs, lost past and future earnings, and noneconomic damages.

Doctors Assumed Cancer, Knowing Infection Was Alternate Possibility

The history of the case shows several occasions when the doctors at Hamot failed to follow up on the possibility that an infection, rather than lung and brain cancer, was the cause of the man’s symptoms.

The pianist went to the Hamot emergency room in December 2007 complaining he was having trouble speaking and finding words. A brain scan found three 9 mm lesions, and a chest X-ray showed a mass in his lung consistent with pneumonia, for which he had been treated about two weeks before. He also had a slightly elevated temperature, and lab tests showed the possibility of a bacterial infection.

According to the plaintiffs, the doctors acknowledged from the beginning that the symptoms could be the result either of cancer spreading from his lung to his brain or of an infection. Nevertheless, because the man had a history of smoking and didn’t have all the classic symptoms of an infection, they treated the man solely for cancer.

  • The emergency room neurologist ordered high doses of a steroid to reduce the swelling in the man’s brain, which only worsened the infection.
  • A consulting pulmonologist ordered a lung biopsy, but signed off on the case before reviewing the test results, which failed to find any abnormal matter. A second biopsy, ordered by a radiologist, was negative for lung cancer, but the results were never sent to the pulmonologist or anyone else on the case.
  • A cancer specialist was consulted but didn’t bother to confirm the initial diagnosis.

In mid-January, the pianist was rushed to the hospital because he was vomiting and couldn’t speak coherently. The brain lesions had quadrupled in size. A neurosurgeon and an infectious disease specialist determined that the infection had destroyed large portions of the man’s brain. The infection readily responded to antibiotics and could easily have been treated if not for the misdiagnosis.

Because of the brain injury caused by the infection, the man now has trouble speaking coherently and has to carry a card with him explaining that he is not drunk or developmentally disabled.

Speaking haltingly after the verdict, the man said he wished he had never gone to Hamot and that he could be the man he used to be. He ended with a single complete sentence: “They robbed me.”

Like many medical malpractice plaintiffs, he wanted to “say his piece,” said the man’s wife. “He wanted to tell people what happened to him.”

Source: Erie Times-News, “Hamot ordered to pay $3.5 million to Erie man,” Lisa Thompson, October 27, 2010

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