Events in the Case
In 2017, the Pennsylvania woman was diagnosed with a heart valve abnormality that put her at risk for aortic dissection - a condition in which the main artery that exits the heart tears or splits. Aortic dissection is often fatal if the tear ruptures the outer wall of the aorta, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In 2020, the 32-year-old woman presented at Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She reported experiencing sharp and burning pains in her chest and abdomen - symptoms commonly associated with an aortic dissection, among other conditions.
The woman’s symptoms are also related to other potential health conditions, including heart attack and stroke. Aortic dissections are also most commonly diagnosed in men in their 60s or 70s than in women in their 30s. However, the woman’s 2017 heart valve abnormality diagnosis was included in her chart at Moses Taylor Hospital, giving the staff additional information that an aortic dissection was more likely.
As the woman communicated her intense pain levels, her mother became concerned and repeatedly asked the staff to intervene. A delay in ordering tests led to a five-hour interlude between the woman’s arrival at the hospital and the diagnosis of her aortic dissection.
The woman was transferred to Regional Hospital of Scranton for emergency heart surgery approximately 17 hours after she first presented with symptoms of aortic dissection. Approximately 12 hours later, she died of cardiac arrest.
The Terms of the Settlement
The lawsuit named Moses Taylor Hospital as a defendant. It also identified several medical professionals who treated the woman in the emergency room, including a physician, a physician’s assistant, and a registered nurse.
In addition, the lawsuit included three physicians who had treated the woman for her heart valve abnormality in the years between its diagnosis and her death. The suit alleged that the three physicians failed to treat or monitor the abnormality according to the applicable standard of care.
The case was originally scheduled for trial on June 12, 2023 in Lackawanna County Court, Pennsylvania. The parties settled the case shortly before the trial date.
Under the settlement agreement, the woman’s parents will receive $4.15 million. Their attorneys will receive $3.1 million to cover attorney’s fees and litigation costs.
The hospital declined to comment on the settlement.
Expert Participation and Takeaways for Attorneys
Aortic dissection is “a frequently misdiagnosed and often-fatal condition,” according to a 2020 study of medical malpractice claims involving aortic dissection.
In this case, several factors initially made the plaintiff’s case more challenging to prove. These included the fact that the plaintiff, a woman in her early 30s, is not in the most common demographic for aortic dissection - a group composed of men ages 60-80. Also, the symptoms of aortic dissection are similar to those of a number of other common conditions, which means that even medical professionals adhering to the standard of care might look elsewhere for answers first.
However, two factors, in this case, stood out in favor of the plaintiffs. The first is that the woman had a diagnosed heart valve abnormality that increases the risk of aortic dissection - a fact that hospital staff knew and that was arguably material to decision-making regarding testing, diagnosis, and the standard of care. The other is that while the symptoms of aortic dissection also appear in other medical conditions, those conditions - including heart attack and stroke - are also potentially fatal and demand quick diagnosis from emergency medical teams.
Given these facts, the argument that a five-hour delay in diagnosis and a seventeen-hour gap between the patient’s emergency department arrival and heart surgery represent a breach in the standard of care becomes clearer. At trial, attorneys likely would have relied on the testimony of cardiologists and related medical professionals to educate the jury. These expert witnesses would likely have been called upon to explain both aortic dissection generally and the specifics that made this patient’s case such a challenge.