Iowa Supreme Court Rules on Case of Woman with Cancer Diagnosis

November 24, 2008

The Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling on Nov. 21 that sends the case of a woman who sued her doctors for failing to diagnose breast cancer back to a lower court for more proceedings.

In her lawsuit filed in Scott County District Court, Pamela Rock claims the doctors’ negligence caused the cancer to spread to her lymph nodes.

It names Dr. Rose Warhank and the Blue Grass Family Medical Center, Dr. Robert Hartung and the Center for Breast Health and Genesis Medical Center.

According to the lawsuit, Rock noticed a lump in her left breast in May 2002 and called Warhank to have it examined. She was referred to the Center for Breast Health for a bilateral mammogram. During a follow-up appointment, Rock said Warhank told her the mammogram was normal and “not to worry about the lump.”

The following month, she was asked to come in for additional views of her right breast. Rock claims that she reminded the technician during the appointment that the lump was in her left breast, not the right, and the technician assured her that nothing was seen on the mammogram of her left breast.

Court records said Hartung reviewed the radiology report of the right breast and said in a letter to Rock that it showed no sign of cancer.

A few months later, Rock said she was still concerned about the lump in her left breast and made an appointment with another doctor at the Family Medical Center, who said the lump was probably benign but recommend a surgical consult.

Further tests on Rock’s left breast showed that she had cancer, and in October 2002 she had breast tissue and six lymph nodes removed, five of which were cancerous. Court records said that Rock had to have additional surgery to remove another half-dozen lymph nodes, including one cancerous one. She also underwent chemotherapy treatment.

In October 2004, Rock filed the lawsuit against Warhank, Hartung and their employers, claiming that they failed to properly examine, diagnose and treat the cancer in her left breast. She said their negligence caused the cancer to spread to six of her 12 lymph nodes requiring further medical treatment and expense, as well as decreasing her life span.

A district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment after their attorneys argued that the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations, which is two years. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court vacates the appeals court decision and reverses the district court’s decision for summary judgment. The high court rejected the defendants’ argument that Rock should have known of her injury in September 2002 when a surgeon told her initial testing of the breast was not normal.

Rock argued that she didn’t know the extent of her condition and its cause until she was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 8, 2002, which was within two years of when she filed the lawsuit.

The Supreme Court agreed.

“Rock could not have known, and would not have known through reasonable diligence of her injury, the worsening of her cancer, or its cause in fact, the misdiagnosis, until she had been properly diagnosed with cancer at the earliest,” the high court wrote in its ruling.

It sent the case back to district court for further proceedings.

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