Clinic error brings U.S. settlement
By Patricia Manson
Law Bulletin staff writer
The U.S. government will pay nearly $5 million to settle a lawsuit accusing personnel at a federally funded clinic of failing to tell a patient about a string of abnormal Pap smears.
The suit alleged Melissa Weakley’s death at the age of 31 could have been prevented if follow-up tests had been performed during one of her numerous visits to the Friend Family Health Center on Chicago’s South Side.
Between the first abnormal smear in 2004 and her death in 2011, the suit alleged, Weakley’s treatable cervical dysplasia developed into cancer and metastasized throughout her body.
Half the $4.95 million the government will pay will settle a wrongful-death action and the other half will settle a survival action.
Weakley’s four children each will receive $883,444 of the settlement money.
The law firms representing Weakley’s estate—Cogan & Power P.C. and Heller & Richmond Ltd.—will split $1,237,500 in attorney fees.
“It’s a tragic case,” Michael R. Richmond said today. “We have a young woman with four surviving children who had a condition that was 100 percent treatable had it been treated in a timely manner.”
But the fact Weakley needed to be tested and treated for a serious medical condition, he said, “was buried in her charts.”
Michael Paul Cogan said the situation with Weakley “is as bad as it gets.”
Tests revealed that Weakley was HPV-positive, which placed her at a high risk of developing cervical cancer, Cogan said.
Also, he said, Weakley had abnormal Pap smears in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
The nurse who tracked Pap smears at the clinic sent letters to Weakley following each abnormal smear telling her about the test results, Cogan said.
However, he said, the letters were returned marked “addressee unknown” because the nurse was using an outdated address.
After a letter was returned twice, Cogan said, the nurse sent a third letter to the same outdated address stating that the clinic assumed Weakley had sought medical treatment elsewhere for her condition.
The third letter also was returned, he said.
In the meantime, he said, Weakley was being treated at the clinic between eight and 11 times a year.
But because of “a complete breakdown in systems,” the medical personnel treating Weakley during those visits didn’t realize other personnel were trying to nifty her about the Pap smears, Cogan said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I hope I never see anything like it again.”
The clinic was so negligent, Cogan said, it could not find an expert witness to testify on its behalf.
“It is unusual—if not unique—in our legal environment where the defense is unable to find any physician willing to defend the client on the standard of care, proximate cause or damages,” he said.
Cogan and Richmond said Weakley’s case prompted the Friend Family clinic to change its procedures for notifying patients of test results.
“Unfortunately for Melissa, it was too late,” Cogan said.
The clinic’s procedures, Richmond said, led to “a very sad and preventable death.”
“There are four minor children that are left without their mother,” he said.
The government was represented in the case by Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig A. Oswald.
Spokesman Joseph Fitzpatrick of the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey approved the proposed settlement and the distribution of the money on July 1.
The case is Odelia Anderson v. United States, No. 12 5824.
Source Chicago Daily Law Bulletin