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Ben Glass
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Doctor Put on Hold, Hangs Up, Patient Dies

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Virginia Radiologist Hangs Up Phone and Faxes Report of Life-Threatening Blood Clots. Treating Doctor Doesn’t Act on Fax. Virginia Supreme Court says that Radiologist Cannot Escape Liability by Blaming the Treating Doctor.

On Friday The Supreme Court of Virginia has ordered a new trial for the estate of a woman who died from a pulmonary embolism, rejecting a jury instruction that permitted a doctor who hung up the phone after being put on hold to blame the patient’s primary care physician. Neither the patient nor her doctor were told that the radiologist had found blood clots in her calf. She died 6 days later from untreated

In May 2005 Tawanda Williams, single mother of two, was referred to a local radiologist for a sonogram study of her calf after she reported pain to her doctors at Kaiser Permanente in Fair Oaks, Virginia. The radiologist, Vienna physician Cong Le, interpreted the study and concluded that Williams had a potentially life-threatening condition, deep vein thrombosis. While dangerous, deep vein thrombosis is very amenable to treatment by blood thinners.

According the Supreme Court’s opinion, released June 6, 2008, Le reached an operator at Kaiser and, after identifying himself and asking to speak to Dr. McClain, he was put on hold so long that he “lost confidence to get in touch with [Dr. McClain] at that moment.” He stated that he was unable to leave a voicemail or talk to a human being. Dr. Le testified that previously he had problems communicating with the doctors at Kaiser by telephone. Dr. Le hung up and faxed a report to Dr. McClain. Evidence at trial showed that Le did not try to call back to Kaiser or to the patient, who’s contact information he had.

The information that Tawanda Williams had life threatening blood clots was not acted upon by her doctor and she died six days later.

The Virginia Supreme Court said that

“the evidence proved without contradiction that the communication problems in this case were begun and put in motion by Dr. Le’s failure to make direct contact with Dr. McClain, a member of his team, or Williams.”

Reversing the trial court’s decision to allow the jury to determine that Dr. Le’s negligence was “cut-off” by Dr. McClain’s failure to read the report that had been faxed to him, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial.

Benjamin W. Glass, III, one of the attorneys who represented the estate said that this case “presents a patient’s worst nightmare—a test is done which shows a condition that is life-threatening but very treatable—but none of the doctors act on the request. Dr. Le should have called back and told the Kaiser operator that he had an emergency on his hands and he should also have called Tawanda Williams and told her to get to an emergency department. He had a time-bomb on his hands yet he failed to communicate the urgency of the situation to the Kaiser operator.”

Glass and his co-counsel, Frank Kearney of Washington, D.C. expect that a new trial will be held in the Spring of 2009.

The Virginia Supreme Court opinion on the case is here.