Appeals Court: Family Can Sue Over Misdiagnosis

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A couple who claims their daughter’s rare form of muscle cancer would have been curable if diagnosed earlier can sue a doctor who failed to diagnose the disease because the delay in treatment made the girl’s death more likely, the MinnesotaCourt of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The appeals court said that when it comes to cancer misdiagnosis cases, the unique circumstances of each situation must be examined. While some patients might have no recourse, the judges wrote that under their reading of case law, this lawsuit can go forward because it “has become more probable than not that the patient will not survive.”

The ruling reverses a Kandiyohi County District Court decision to dismiss the case against Dr. Rachel Tollefsrud and the Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar.

Kayla and Joseph Dickhoff claim they told Tollefsrud about a suspicious bump on their now 5-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, shortly after her birth. Kayla Dickhoff says Tollefsrud told her to keep an eye on it and not to worry because it may be just a cyst.

The two sides dispute how often the bump was discussed during Joceyln’s first year. While Kayla Dickhoff said she pointed it out to Tollefsrud numerous times, Tollefsrud said she recalled a conversation about it before Jocelyn’s one-year checkup. Tollefsrud did not document the bump in Jocelyn’s medical file until that one-year checkup, and noted it had grown.

Kayla Dickhoff took her daughter to other doctors, and Joceyln was diagnosed with an advanced form of muscle cancer that had metastasized. She underwent treatment, but her cancer recurred in 2010.

The Dickhoffs sued for damages in 2009, before the cancer came back, claiming reasonable care would have led to an earlier diagnosis while the disease was curable, and negligence by Tollefsrud and the clinic caused injuries that would lead to future expenses and pain.

The Dickhoffs’ attorney, Stephen Rathke, said Joceyln “still has cancer and continues to undergo extensive treatment, but she has not won the battle yet.”

The district court sided with Tollefsrud, dismissing the medical malpractice claim. The district court also denied a request for damages based on the cancer recurrence, saying expert testimony didn’t show that negligence, rather than cancer, was the more likely cause of Jocelyn’s injuries.

But the appeals court noted that one expert wrote in a court affidavit that Jocelyn’s cancer would have been curable had it been diagnosed shortly after her birth and that she was more likely to die because it wasn’t treated.

That expert, pediatric hematology and oncology Dr. Edwin Forman, said because the cancer was advanced, Jocelyn had no better than a 40-percent chance of survival, but if she had been diagnosed earlier her chances of survival would’ve been much higher than 60 percent.

Because of that, the appeals court found, a jury could also find that the cancer recurrence was caused by Tollefsrud’s negligence.

Steven Schwegman, an attorney for Tollefsrud and the clinic, said he is disappointed by the ruling and suspects his clients will ask the Supreme Court to review the case.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • well

    I am sure the doctor just blew it off because the patient was so young. Too bad.

  • Need for tort reform

    If your insurance doesn’t cover it, sue the insurance company… this is why you get a second opinion on these matters. The answer isn’t to sue the doctors. Strict negligence is one thing, but babies don’t have LED screens with error messages on them. They’re not mechanical devices. Humans have human diseases and doctors will make their best effort to save lives. That doctor probably didn’t pay for ten years of education to show up one day and say, “you know, i think i’ll misdiagnose a child today that will lead to his own demise.”

  • Laurie

    So, people don’t need to take responsibility for their mistakes? Is that what you are saying? And what insurance do you think pays for the misdiagnosis of a child that could ultimately lead to their death? No, people don’t come with an LED screen, but that’s why we rely upon our medical providers to take to the time to check out concerns that we have and not to brush off complaints.

    • No

      No Laurie. Dr.s are human, some are even bad. Therefore, if you have a concern and the Dr. doesn’t take it seriously and it bugs the heck out of you or the problem gets worse—you get a second opinion or find a new Dr. If my baby had a lump, I would have taken it upon myself through other means to figure that out. The fault is shared.

  • Mike

    What do you call the person who graduates last in their class at Med School? Doctor……

    • Blah Blah

      And last in their class is still at least 20x more intelligent than you. So what’s your point?

  • See BS

    Remember the Little House on the Prairie days, when you just gave the Doctor a chicken or some eggs, and they helped you out the best they can?

    Our court system is the #1 reason healthcare is unafordable. Money isn’t going to change what happened or bring back someone who died from natural causes.

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