Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Estate to Pursue Wrongful Death Medical Malpractice Action

In Massachusetts, any medical malpractice action must be approved by a tribunal before it can be filed in civil court. The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently reversed a tribunal decision in 17-P-780, which prevented an estate from pursuing a Massachusetts medical malpractice lawsuit against the deceased’s primary care physician. For a 17-month period, the deceased sought care from his doctor several times for various symptoms. Some he experienced, like shortness of breath and chest tightness, are linked to heart disease. His physician offered diagnosis and treatment for other maladies but did not address or treat him for a heart-related condition. He also failed to refer him to a cardiologist.

The deceased patient was taken to an emergency room at the end of this period, experiencing a heart attack due to 100 percent blockage of his left anterior artery. He died soon afterward at the age of 46. His mother and personal representative filed a lawsuit against his treating physician for the patient’s death because of his failure to identify and address the heart disease in violation of the applicable standard of care.

The matter went before the medical tribunal, per G.L. c. 231, sec. 60B. The tribunal determined the proof was insufficient to raise a legitimate question of liability appropriate for judicial inquiry, even if it was substantiated. The estate was required to show the hospital was a provider of health care as defined by the General Laws, the hospital did not follow good medical practice, and the extent of damages suffered as a result of these actions. To see whether or not the physician at issue followed the standard of care, the tribunal looks at whether or not the care was what an average qualified physician in his or her area of specialty would provide. An injured party usually offers the opinion of a qualified medical physician to establish the standard of care.

The tribunal makes factual determinations when it assesses whether or not the offered proof is sufficient, but it cannot examine the weight or credibility of the evidence. The tribunal must look at the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. In this lawsuit, the estate submitted a letter from their retained expert, who wrote the symptoms of heart disease include chest tightness, left arm pain, left arm numbness, and wheezing (among others). The expert noted that the applicable standard of care required general practitioners to refer their patients to a cardiologist for further testing and treatment when they display symptoms similar to the deceased. The expert also pointed out this same physician prescribed testosterone cream for the patient, even though testing did not reveal any hormone deficiencies.

The defendant physician argued the expert’s opinions were contradicted by the medical records. The appellate court disagreed, looking at the defendant’s references to heartburn and frequent complaints of chest tightness by the patient in the patient’s file. The Appeals Court determined it was inappropriate for the tribunal to give weight to certain facts highlighted by the defendant physician to counter the estate’s claim the defendant doctor did not follow the standard of care. The appellate court determined the medical records and the expert’s detailed report provided enough evidence that a fact-finder could infer negligent professional conduct. The court found the estate met its initial burden of raising a legitimate question of liability to be examined in civil court. The order was reversed, and the estate was allowed to pursue its wrongful death action against the general practitioner.

The Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the litigation experience you need at your side to pursue personal injury damages. Our office will aggressively pursue all avenues of legal relief.  Call our office today at 508.822.6600.

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