To counter this argument, the plaintiff introduced a medical expert to testify that it was the duty of the primary care physician to read the EKG and to act on it. The expert testified that had the EKG been acted on, the blocked artery would have been discovered while the patient was in the hospital, and the implantation of a stent could have prevented his death.

The jury deliberated for over four hours before returning a verdict in the amount of $6 million.

Legal Background

The primary care physician was found 50% responsible for the death of her patient because she had failed to read the EKG taken in the emergency department. The emergency room physician (who wasn’t part of the trial because he had settled for an undisclosed sum out of court) was found 50% responsible for the patient’s death because even though he had interpreted the EKG, he had failed to act on the alarming results.

The jury returned a verdict of $6 million dollars of which the primary care physician would have to pay $3 million (the total was reduced by 50% due to the emergency room physician’s responsibility).

When there is more than one defendant in a case, responsibility can be apportioned out accordingly, and the defendants have to pay their share. In the case of the emergency room physician who settled out of court – we don’t know whether he paid more or less than $3 million as part of his settlement, but had he gone to trial he would have been responsible for half of the $6 million verdict.    

Protecting Yourself

Both physicians made errors in this case. Dr. E, the emergency room physician, read the EKG but didn’t act on it. He was focused on the stroke symptoms and neglected to follow through with the EKG results. While Dr. E was correct in having the patient evaluated by a neurologist, he also should have ordered a cardiology consult. Doing so would have revealed Mr. B’s blocked artery, and in the hospital he had the best chance of having it successfully treated via a stent.

The primary care physician also erred. Her mistake was to ignore the EKG completely – she never even read it. Not thoroughly looking at a hospitalized patient’s test results is clearly an error, but it’s one that happened because Dr. P assumed that the hospital physician would have looked at it and followed through. Making assumptions is never a good idea when a patient’s health is on the line. Don’t assume that any other clinician is going to be looking at your patient’s records. Dr. P also erred by acting as though once the patient was in the hospital, he was not really her responsibility. Your patient is still your patient even when they are in the hospital, and even when they are being seen by specialists. Always check your patients’ test results and speak to other doctors who have examined them to determine if something might have been missed. In this case, simply acting on an abnormal EKG might have avoided this tragedy.