Minnesota Appeals Court Revives Malpractice Case in Transplant Death

January 6, 2015

A malpractice case for a Minnesota woman who died after receiving a transplant of a cancerous pancreas may be headed for a trial.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals this week ruled the case against Dr. Ty Dunn should head to court in the death of 36-year-old Jodie Shierts, reversing a Hennepin County judge’s decision dismissing the lawsuit.

The court said Dunn violated state laws on standard care by clearing the organ for a transplant. Dunn didn’t know the pancreas was infected with cancer, the court said, but should have more thoroughly screened the donor, who was thought at the time of transplant to have died of bacterial meningitis.

“I’m sure the family is happy,” said Kay Nord Hunt, the attorney for the trustee of Shierts’ heirs. “Now the suit can go to trial and be heard on its merits.”

Shierts, of Pequot Lakes, needed kidney and pancreas transplants because of renal disease, stemming from diabetes.

The Star Tribune reported Dunn lined up a donor through an organ procurement organization called Life Source, which told her the donor had died of bacterial meningitis. After her own investigating, Dunn concluded that was likely true and approved the transplant, which was performed March 30, 2007.

A month after the donor’s death, an autopsy revealed he had died of a rare form of cancer. By the time the pancreas was removed from Shierts, the disease already had spread.

She died Sept. 12, 2007. Shierts’ family and a trustee filed a malpractice lawsuit against Dunn and the University of Minnesota-Physicians, which represents the Minneapolis hospital where Dunn works as a transplant surgeon.

A Hennepin County judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying that Dunn couldn’t have foreseen the donor had actually died of cancer.

The appeals court ruled there was “enough uncertainty surrounding the donor’s cause of death existed to constitute a foreseeable danger in accepting any of his organs,” and the transplant should have been rejected.

Jennifer Waterworth, Dunn’s lawyer, said she can’t comment on pending litigation. Waterworth could ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision. Otherwise, the case will head to trial in Hennepin County court.

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