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June 29, 2001 - Doctor Tagged with $1.5M Verdict In Landmark Elder Abuse Case

June 29, 2001 - Doctor Tagged with $1.5M Verdict In Landmark Elder Abuse Case

A California jury awarded a $1.5 million verdict against a physician for allegedly failing to provide adequate pain medication to an elderly patient dying of lung cancer. This is the first time a doctor was found liable under California's Elder Abuse Act for failure to provide adequate medication to an elderly person.

The lawsuit against Dr. Chin and the hospital alleged that during Bergman's entire stay at the hospital, the defendants "recklessly and callously failed to monitor his level of pain" and withheld pain medication in violation of accepted medical standards.

William Bergman was diagnosed with lung cancer and complained of "excruciating" pain to his physician and to the hospital staff. His relatives repeatedly asked Bergman's treating physician, Dr. Chin, to prescribe pain relief medication. Dr. Chin allegedly refused to provide appropriate pain medication. No settlement offers were made by the physician.

Compassion in Dying, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving end-of-life care and expanding options for terminally ill patients, sponsored the case. "Today's verdict is a wake-up call," Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for the organization, said in a press release. And according to Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the Compassion in Dying Federation, "The verdict empowers patients to insist that physicians treat pain and other symptoms at the end of life."

At the trial that began May 14, plaintiffs' experts testified that Bergman should have received around-the-clock pain medication and been given additional medication "as needed" for breakthrough pain. They concluded that care proved by Dr. Chin was "appalling" and "egregious." Tucker explained that Dr. Chin prescribed 25 milligrams of Demerol, which was the "wrong medication," and that the minimum dosage of Demerol should have been 100 milligrams. He never adjusted the pain medication either, she said.

At trial the defendants unsuccessfully offered testimony of an expert who testified that the pain management was well within the standard of care and that Dr. Chin had exercised an acceptable professional medical judgment. Eden Medical Center settled the case for an undisclosed amount about a month before trial. The hospital also agreed to educate its medical staff regarding a new approach to pain management.

Under California's Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act, Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 15600, health-care providers found liable in cases of egregious elder abuse may have to pay attorneys' fees and damages for the decedent's pain and suffering.

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