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New Mexico Supreme Court Reverses Trial Court Ruling and Allows Injured Cancer Patient to Proceed with Suit

New Mexico Supreme Court Reverses Trial Court Ruling and Allows Injured Cancer Patient to Proceed with Suit

Cancer is a devastating diagnosis to all who receive it. However, early diagnosis can aid in treatment and recovery. Limited access to care and a type of cancer that is difficult to detect may lead to its discovery at a later stage, but what a patient does not and should not expect is a misdiagnosis at the hands of medical professionals.

A decision issued on September 18, 2014 by the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed a summary judgment in favor of the hospital and remanded the case back to the trial court to determine if doctors had breached standards of care in failing to tell a patient about his potential cancer diagnosis in time to save his life. Diego Zamora, as Personal Representative of the Estate of William “Mack” Vaughan v. St. Vincent Hospital, —P.3d—2014, 2014 WL 4638900 (Case No. 33,770).

In August of 2002, Mr. Vaughan had arrived at the emergency room of St. Vincent Hospital with abdominal pain.  He was seen by the ER doctor and a general surgeon, who called in a contract radiologist to perform an abdominal scan on the patient. The radiologist concluded that the patient probably had a diverticular abscess, but as a secondary diagnosis, the patient might have cancer. It is unknown whether the radiologist told the other physicians about the possibility of cancer. The general surgeon relayed the information about the diverticular abscess to the patient and recommended he stay for observation, but the patient declined and was discharged from the emergency room.

Hospital records show that the radiologist had listed cancer, or neoplasm, as a second potential diagnosis on the radiology report, and that his findings were communicated to the ER doctor and general surgeon. The general surgeon testified that she never received the report, and no record was found showing it had been delivered to her. The surgeon gave a sworn statement that, had she known about the neoplasm as a potential diagnosis, she would have “tried to do whatever [she] could to get a hold of the patient.” Mr. Vaughan was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer 14 months later.

Prior to his death, Mr. Vaughan filed the lawsuit against the hospital, alleging negligence in its failure to communicate the radiologist’s findings to the general surgeon, such that Mr. Vaughan was treated with antibiotics for the abscess, but was never told about the possible cancer. In response, the hospital inquired whether Mr. Vaughan had retained an expert to testify about standards of care. The hospital offered its own expert opinion in an affidavit in support of its motion for summary judgment, which stated that the hospital complied with the standard of care in its treatment of the patient. The hospital argued that the complaint should be dismissed because the patient did not have his own expert witness on the standard of care, and because the complaint failed to assert vicarious liability or apparent agency against the hospital for the actions of the contract radiologist. The district court granted the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal.

However, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, stating that the hospital had sufficient notice of claims for vicarious liability and apparent agency because New Mexico follows the “notice pleadings” rules, requiring only “a short and plain statement” of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. The Supreme Court reinforced prior decisions that declined to make the initial proceedings so tricky that litigants would be prevented from having their day in court. The Court further ruled that there was nothing in the rules of civil procedure that required litigants to specifically include theories of vicarious liability or apparent agency to meet the standard of fair notice of a cause of action. The complaint provided the names of the key players in the action along with the general nature of the suit, and that was sufficient notice to the hospital of the action.

The Court additionally ruled that the estate of the patient provided enough facts and evidence to support an allegation of negligence, or a failure to uphold the duty of reasonable care to the patient. The Court also stated that an expert witness was not necessary to establish the standard of care because the injury was the result of ordinary negligence that did not require specialized knowledge. The case was remanded back to the state district court for trial on the merits.

The attorneys at Parnall Law Firm, LLC are experienced medical malpractice litigators, and we are here to aggressively pursue the damages you and your family deserve. If you or a family member has been injured by the negligence of a hospital, physician or other medical provider, contact our office at 505-332-BERT.