A medical malpractice claim was brought against pulmonologist Manuel Carcelen of Pulmonary Medicine Associates, P.C. in Alabaster, Alabama stemming from a failure to diagnose lung cancer for patient Burt Williams. Carcelan was alleged to have failed to notice irregularities in several CAT scans that were taken of his lungs and his chest region. The initial CAT scan occurred when Williams was hospitalized for pneumonia. A jury in Shelby County ultimately ruled against the doctor and the medical facility in the suit.
Radiologists had noted the existence of irregularities; however, Carcelen did not acknowledge them. The same thing happened again just over a year later, with radiologists noting a potential problem in the left lung. Shortly after, Williams was discharged without further treatment. Less than one year, later as the cancer progressed, a third CAT scan clearly revealed the existence of metastatic lung cancer. Williams died shortly thereafter due to the progression of the disease.
The claim alleged that Carcelen was negligent in failing to diagnose and treat the condition. By the time it was detected, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and was essentially incurable. Plaintiff records indicate that the cancer began in the lung and then spread to several nearby bones, the ribs and the liver. By this stage, the cells were resistant to aggressive treatment.
The trial lasted for one week and the jury awarded his estate $3 million, which was allocated between compensatory and punitive damages. The basis for punitive damages was “blatant disregard” for the standards of professional care. This was believed to be among the largest medical malpractice awards in the county's history.
Under Alabama's laws, actions of medical malpractice may be brought against a medical provider when it is asserted that the provider's care did not meet the standards of the profession. In addition, it must be proven that this failure specifically led to the plaintiff's injury. Recoverable damages include:
- Past damages
- Future damages
- Punitive damages
The state generally allows for pursuit of punitive damages, unless the state is the named defendant in the matter. Here, the conduct of the medical provider must be deemed as extending beyond merely gross negligence, but does not require that malicious intent in proven. The evidence must be determined to be “clear and convincing”. Punitive damages serve as a punishment to the defendant, and they may exceed the amount of economic damages awarded by the trier of fact.
There are several medical options commonly used for detecting lung cancer including:
- Sputum cytology: Involves microscopic examination of a mucous sample obtained from the lungs to detect cancerous cells.
- Chest X-ray: Often this is the initially used test based on relatively low-cost and easy availability.
- Computer tomography (CAT) scan: Instead of generating a single image like an x-ray, these more advanced images offer a rotating view of the entire region. These are better at showing the presence of more discreet tumors compared to x-rays.