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December 11, 2015

Case Report

$700,000 medical malpractice settlement for 88-year-old woman rendered blind

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Sugarman Rogers partner David A. Barry has obtained a $700,000 settlement for an 88-year-old woman who became blind as a result of her physician’s failure to promptly diagnose and treat her temporal arteritis, a blood-vessel inflammation that can lead to loss of vision if not promptly diagnosed and treated with steroids.

The plaintiff was an 86-year-old woman whose medical history included blindness in her right eye resulting from an injury she had sustained as an infant. In September, 2012 the defendant, an internist who had been the plaintiff’s primary care physician for a number of years, diagnosed her with polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disease.

The defendant testified that she subsequently questioned that diagnosis. On April 23, 2013 the plaintiff saw the defendant with a chief complaint of pain in her jaw with chewing (“jaw claudication”) and a sore throat. During the visit she was accompanied by her daughter, who testified that in addition to jaw pain and a sore throat, the plaintiff also complained of a bad headache, scalp tenderness and a general feeling of malaise. These symptoms were not noted in the defendant’s record, and she had no independent memory of what was told to her during the visit. The defendant claimed, however, that she would have recorded these symptoms in her note if she had been told about them. The defendant diagnosed the plaintiff as suffering from a “salivary gland dysfunction” and told her to suck on sour candy to stimulate saliva.

Five days later the plaintiff woke up unable to see. She was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital and later seen by an ophthalmologist, who immediately diagnosed her as having temporal arteritis (also known as giant cell arteritis), an inflammatory condition which, if not properly diagnosed and treated with intravenous steroids, can result in blindness. Plaintiff was immediately hospitalized and the diagnosis of temporal arteritis was confirmed by a temporal artery biopsy. Despite treatment with intravenous steroids in the hospital, the plaintiff lost sight in her left eye. Given her preexisting lack of vision in the right eye, the plaintiff was rendered totally blind.

Plaintiff alleged that the headache, jaw pain, scalp tenderness, sore throat and feeling of malaise that she complained about to the defendant on April 23, 2013 were classic symptoms of temporal arteritis. Moreover, temporal arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica are closely related conditions, and patients with polymyalgia rheumatica, which the defendant had previously diagnosed in the plaintiff, are at higher risk of developing temporal arteritis. Temporal arteritis is also a disease of older women like the plaintiff.

Plaintiff was prepared to present expert testimony that the defendant violated the standard of care when she failed to diagnose and treat the plaintiff’s temporal arteritis on April 23, 2013. In addition, the plaintiff had expert testimony that if she had been diagnosed and treated with intravenous steroids at that time, she would not have become blind. The defendant denied the plaintiff’s allegations as to negligence and causation, and had experts to support their defenses.

Prior to becoming blind, the plaintiff was a highly independent woman who lived by herself in a condominium. As a result of her loss of sight, she could no longer live alone and had to move to an assisted living facility where she currently resides. The plaintiff’s loss of independence was emotionally painful for her and she sought counselling to help her deal with this trauma.

The case settled at mediation.