$1.2 Million Verdict: Wrongful Death – Perforated Ulcer
The Estate of Ruthie Lacey v. James D. Merritt, M.D. and W.J. Stoecker, M.D
Two doctors who failed to detect a woman’s ulcer that was visible in a CT scan were hit with a $1.2 million verdict in a wrongful death case.
David M. Zevan and Spencer E. Farris, the St. Louis lawyers who handled the case, adopted an unusual approach at trial to win the big verdict in rural Scott County.
“There was nothing textbook about this case,” said Farris. “Because of time constraints and scheduling problems, witnesses didn’t appear chronologically.”
The doctor’s expert testified near the very beginning of the plaintiff’s case and the plaintiff’s expert testified during the defense portion of the case.
“The conventional wisdom is that there is no way you should let a defense expert testify in your case, and most cases begin with the plaintiff’s expert,” said Farris. “This case was different,” he said, “as we had good admissions from the defense expert in this case.”
On April 5, Ruthie Lacey, 57, went to see Dr. James D. Merritt for her severe stomach pain. Merritt, a physician in Essex, MO, sent Lacey to Missouri Southern Healthcare hospital for a CT scan. The CT scan was taken at Missouri Southern, located in Dexter, MO, but it was read remotely by Dr. W.J. Stoecker, a Cape Girardeau physician with Cape Radiology Group.
When Dr. Stoecker read Lacey’s CT scan, he missed the free air visible on the scan but saw fluid which he decided might be recurrent cervical cancer, a condition Lacey had previously battled. Stoecker alleged that he called Merritt to report the fluid but Merritt was not in his office. Neither Stoecker nor Merritt told Lacey of the findings. In addition, Stoecker alleged that he told the hospital that Lacey might show up there. Lacey went home from the hospital and waited to hear from her doctors but never did.
The next day, in even greater pain, Lacey returned to Merritt’s office but he was nowhere to be found so she went to the hospital emergency room. At this point her ulcer was discovered. Unfortunately, it was perforated, and digestive juices and food were entering her abdominal cavity through a hole burned in the wall of her stomach.
On April 7 – two days after she first complained of stomach pain – Lacey underwent emergency surgery. She died the following day.
Ruthie Lacey’s daughter, Susan Coleman, filed a wrongful death suit in St. Louis City Circuit Court in September. The suit was subsequently transferred to Scott County. Coleman alleged that Merritt and Stoecker were negligent when they failed to properly diagnose the ulcer that was visible on the CT scan. She also named Missouri Southern Healthcare and Cape Radiology as defendants but later dismissed her claims against them.
Stoecker denied the allegations. He claimed that the radiological miss did not amount to medical malpractice and that Lacey would not have survived even if the ulcer was diagnosed on April 5. Merritt did not file an answer nor did he respond to discovery requests. Scott County Circuit Judge David Dolan entered a protective order that prevented Merritt from testifying at trial. Merritt did not appear at trial.
The defendants did not make a settlement offer in the case. The four day trial began on Friday and ended the following Wednesday. In addition to putting the defense expert on early in the plaintiff’s case, the plaintiff also introduced the testimony of another expert who had originally been endorsed by the defendant. That expert was dropped from the defense’s expert roster list after he admitted that Lacey had a very high probability of survival if a prompt diagnosis had been made.
At the time of her death, Lacey was on disability due to her bout with cervical cancer. There were no lost wages or economic damages. The plaintiff introduced Lacey’s funeral bills into evidence, despite the oft-cited fear that the relatively small funeral expenses would depress the overall verdict amount.
Once again, the approach adopted by the plaintiff’s lawyers turned out to be the right one. The jury awarded Lacey’s daughter $600,000 in past damages and $600,000 in future damages. Half of the liability was apportioned to Stoecker and the other half to Merritt.
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*The results obtained in each case depend on a variety of factors that are unique to each case. Every case is different and these results, while accurate, do not guarantee a similar result in your case and cannot be used to predict the results of your case.