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Maryland high court to weigh if ‘wrongful death’ applies to lost years of life

Maryland’s top court will consider whether a patient’s terminal illness can give rise to a wrongful death claim based on the argument that they would have lived years longer had the diagnosis been made and life-extending treatment begun earlier.

The Court of Appeals this week agreed to review a lower court ruling that family members claiming wrongful death must show that the doctor’s negligence caused their loved one’s death and not merely deprived them of more time with them.

In its challenged 3-0 ruling, the Court of Special Appeals denied a bid by Stephanie Wadsworth’s father, widower and two children to revive their claim that she would have lived an additional 2 1/2 years if Dr. Poornima Sharma had correctly diagnosed Wadsworth’s terminal breast cancer in 2013.

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge had granted summary judgment for Sharma and her employer, University of Maryland Oncology Associates, Pa., saying the doctor’s allegedly failed diagnosis did not proximately cause Wadsworth’s death.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled in July that Maryland’s wrongful death statute “must be strictly construed” to apply only when – in the law’s words — a “wrongful act caused the death of another.” Sharma’s alleged failure to diagnose the terminal cancer did not cause Wadsworth’s death, as a correct diagnosis would not have resulted in her survival from the disease, the court added in its reported decision.

“In a wrongful death action, death is the only injury for which plaintiffs can sue,” Judge James P. Salmon wrote for the court. “The relatives of Mrs. Wadsworth were not entitled to recover solatium type damages, or any other type of damages because they were deprived of the decedent’s company, love and affection for 30 months. The motions judge (in circuit court) had no choice but to grant summary judgment in favor of the (doctor) as to the wrongful death claim.”

The family, in its successful petition for Court of Appeals review, said Maryland’s wrongful death statute covers not only negligent acts that cause death but also those that result in a “premature” death for the terminally ill.

“(A)s the law was interpreted by the Court of Special Appeals, negligent health care providers who deny life-prolonging treatment to the terminally ill are now essentially immune to causes of action brought pursuant to Maryland’s wrongful death statute,” wrote the family’s attorneys from Brown & Barron LLC in Baltimore.

“In essence, providers are given a ‘free pass’ to violate the standard of care when treating terminally ill patients who were ‘going to die anyway,’ ” attorneys Eleanor T. Chung, Brian S. Brown, Christopher T. Casciano and Elisha N. Hawk added. “Such an interpretation of the wrongful death statute is anathema to public policy and public health, and merits review by this honorable court.”

In a failed request that review be denied, counsel for Sharma and her employer called the wrongful death claim unworthy of the court’s attention because it is based on “unfounded speculation … supported by no medical literature” that Wadsworth would have lived years longer with her terminal illness.

“The Court of Special Appeals recognized that, when Mrs. Wadsworth’s physician purportedly missed her cancer diagnosis, the patient was already suffering from incurable Stage IV breast cancer,” wrote attorney Derek M. Stikeleather, of Goodell, DeVries, Leech & Dann LLP in Baltimore.

“She ‘had no pain or other noticeable problems related to her breast cancer’ between then and when she was diagnosed,’ ” Stikeleather added, quoting the Court of Special Appeals. “And the appropriate cancer treatment that she later received was ‘the same treatment and therapy she would have received if the lesion had been properly diagnosed.’ ”

The Court of Special Appeals is expected to hear arguments in February and issue its decision by Aug. 31. The case is Scott Wadsworth et al. v. Poornima Sharma et al., No. 40, September Term 2021.

According to court papers, Wadsworth was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2006, for which she had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Followup diagnostic scans in 2006, 2007 and 2008 showed no signs of metastatic cancer.

Five years later, an April 2013 scan revealed an abnormality that a radiologist reported as potentially cancerous lesions in Wadsworth’s clavicle, according to the family’s complaint.

Sharma received the report but neither told Wadsworth of its findings nor ordered followup tests, the complaint alleged.

By this time, Wadsworth had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, according to court papers.

She displayed no signs of the disease until February 2016, when she fell and injured her right shoulder. A bone scan revealed a malignant lesion in her clavicle.

Wadsworth, at that point diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, was given the aggressive treatment she would have received had she been diagnosed in April 2013, according to court papers.

Wadsworth died June 10, 2017, at 53 years old.

Had she been diagnosed and treatment begun in April 2017, she would have lived an additional 30 months, until December 2019, according to the family’s medical experts.

The family filed the wrongful death lawsuit in October 2018, accompanied by the estate’s separate claim that Wadsworth suffered emotional anguish and lost wages due to the time she lost because of the missed diagnosis and delayed treatment.

When the circuit court judge granted summary judgment for the defendants, the family and estate sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Though rejecting the family’s wrongful death clam, the court said Wadsworth’s estate could pursue recovery for the pain, suffering and lost earnings. For that claim to succeed, the estate’s representative would have to prove not only that Sharma’s negligence had cost Wadsworth years of life but that she knew of those lost years and suffered mental anguish as a result, the Court of Special Appeals said.

The ruling on the estate’s claim has not been appealed.

Salmon, a retired judge sitting by special assignment, was joined in the Court of Special Appeals opinion by Judges Melanie Shaw Geter and Gregory Wells.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Scott Wadsworth et al. v. Poornima Sharma et al., No.1703, September Term 2019.