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Spine MRI Misread; Paralyzed Woman Wins Suit

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A young woman who ended up paralyzed after two University of California, Davis radiologists missed an arteriovenous malformation in an MRI scan won a $7.6 million malpractice verdict on Friday.

The defense conceded that the abnormal mass was visible on the scan but said that it was “subtle” and therefore that missing it fell within the appropriate standard of care. The jury disagreed—awarding $1.2 million for pain and suffering along with $6.4 million for lost wages and ongoing medical care. California caps pain and suffering in malpractice cases at $250,000. If the verdict is upheld, the total award will be $6.67 million.

The university had not indicated by Monday afternoon whether it would appeal.

Sacramento lawyers Brooks Cutter and Eric Ratinoff represented the woman. The Sacramento Business Journal (subscription required) quoted Cutter as saying:

The jury did a thorough, careful review of the evidence and came up with an award that will enable this young woman to move forward with her life independently with the resources she needs. She’ll be in a wheelchair the rest of her life.

Here’s what happened, according to the Business Journal and the lawyers:

In December 2003, D’Knawn Hairston, age 13, of Elk Grove, California, was hospitalized at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, complaining of back pain and numbness in her legs. A pediatric radiologist and a radiology resident viewed images from a spinal MRI and found nothing abnormal. Doctors treated her for Guillain-Barre syndrome. After a week in the hospital, she improved enough to go home.

In February 2008, she awoke suffering from lower back pain and unable to move her legs. An MRI showed the arteriovenous malformation. Surgery removed it, but its bleeding had already damaged her spinal cord. She is a paraplegic, with no movement below her chest. She  has a 3-year-old son.

Expert witnesses for both sides agreed that the mass was evident on the 2003 scan. The question was how evident. Hairston’s attorneys noted that the resident was responsible for generating 60 to 70 reports a day. They added, “Nobody involved remembered reading the film, but it was evident that the mass was either just missed, or perhaps it was seen but not accurately reported.”

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Have you heard the latest not necessarily surprising development in  the University of Iowa radiology department mess? See our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Pediatric Radiology—Clinical and Radiology Perspectives

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