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Pathology Sample Switch Results in $175k Jury Award

Error incorrectly diagnosed patient with cancer, led to unnecessary surgery.

Published: November 28, 2011

A cancer diagnosis sets off a swift chain of events for a patient, including treatments, surgery and most likely some amount of mental anguish. If that diagnosis was wrong, triggered by mixed-up lab results, it might also result in litigation and, in 1 case, a $175,000 jury verdict for the patient.

Ann Jamison Harmon's pale skin frequently shows moles that must be monitored for potential malignant irregularities, says her attorney, Lloyd C. Smith Jr. She'd been a patient at Eastern Dermatology and Pathology in Greenville, N.C., for 15 years. In 2005, she had a scrape biopsy done on a spot beneath her nose.

About two weeks later, she received a call from the lab. The results were in: She had basal cell carcinoma, which clinicians said needed to be removed from her nose as soon as possible, recalled Mr. Smith.

Ms. Harmon's regular physician at Eastern Dermatology was out of town, so she arranged to have the surgery done by ENT surgeon Paul S. Camnitz, MD. Dr. Camnitz removed a patch of skin slightly smaller than a dime and Ms. Harmon waited a few hours with the surgical wound open while the lab examined the sample.

Then Dr. Camnitz informed Ms. Harmon that the original diagnosis had been made in error, due to accidentally switched pathology samples, and that the spot under her nose had not been cancerous.

Having undergone unnecessary surgery, incurred $2,700 in medical bills and suffered unnecessary and permanent scarring on her face, Ms. Harmon sued for damages. A trial jury found her entitled to recover $175,000 for the mental suffering of being told she had cancer over the phone, having to live for several weeks with the (erroneous) news and undergoing unneeded surgery.

Mr. Smith, her attorney, expresses frustration not only at the lab's error but at how it handled its (literally) phoned-in apology. "Someone from the lab should have gotten in the car, driven over there and talked to her directly," he says. "They should have said something like, 'Listen, we made a mistake, we'll pay for it.'" He says he wonders how the lab dealt with the patient on the other side of the switched diagnoses.

While Eastern Dermatology appealed the jury's award as excessive, an appeals court rejected its arguments. Mark R. Morano, the practice's attorney, declined to comment on the case.

Leigh Page

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