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State settles University of Iowa medical malpractice lawsuit for $7.5 million

Gazette - 7/11/2022

Jul. 11—IOWA CITY — The state agreed Monday to a $7.5 million medical malpractice settlement after a 41-year-old Davenport man suffered severe life-limiting impairments following care at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for a bleeding brain tumor.

The State Appeal Board approved the settlement, the first of the new budget year that began July 1. Although Iowa's Attorney General Offices assigned 75 percent of the payment to UI Physicians — a UI-based medical and surgical practice — the group has a $5 million cap per claim. Thus, the state is paying $2.5 million from its general fund toward the $7.5 million approved to cover injuries to Christopher Dolan and his wife, Wendy Dolan.

In lawsuit-related settlements for the budget year that just ended, the state paid a total $22.3 million — including $6.1 million involving Iowa Board of Regents institutions, like the UIHC.

According to the new settlement, Dolan — now 47 — is in a wheelchair and requires 24-hour care. "His speech, motor, bowel and bladder functions are compromised, and his right leg and arm are spastic and paralyzed," the settlement reported.

His family has incurred bills for care, medications and life-supporting equipment. His wife, an oncology nurse, has had to cut her work hours to care for her husband, according to a lawsuit she filed in August 2020.

'Major neurological deficits'

According to that lawsuit against the state for its governance of the UIHC, Christopher Dolan went to the emergency room at Trinity Medical Center in Bettendorf on Dec. 26, 2016 with a monthlong temporal headache, nausea, vomiting, right eye pain, weeks of visual blurring and light sensitivity.

A CT scan showed a probable tumor, and Trinity arranged a transfer to the UIHC. It offered an ambulance, but the couple opted to drive and Dolan was admitted to the UIHC emergency room that afternoon. Labs indicated a pituitary tumor, and an MRI revealed a mass. UIHC discharged Dolan with instructions to follow up with UIHC neurosurgery in two weeks. But the next day, according to the lawsuit, Dolan was back at the Bettendorf emergency room with a worsening headache and vomiting.

Trinity discharged him with prescriptions and directed him to UIHC if symptoms worsened. They did, according to the lawsuit, and he returned to UIHC the night of Dec. 27, 2016, with a severe headache, vomiting, double and blurred vision and eye pain.

Another CT scan reconfirmed the large pituitary mass, "with a concern of elevated intracranial pressure and a rapid expansion of the tumor to bleeding," according to the lawsuit.

But UIHC discharged Dolan early Dec. 28, 2016, and told him to follow up with neurosurgery.

The next day, after calling UIHC about worsening symptoms, Dolan went to again to the UIHC emergency room with a "temporal headache rated 10/10 directly behind his eyes and extremely sharp," according to his lawsuit. He couldn't keep food or medicine down, and an MRI showed the tumor had grown and begun to hemorrhage. Dolan was admitted to UIHC, which scheduled surgery to remove it for the next morning, according to the lawsuit.

Dolan went into surgery the morning of Dec. 30, 2016, and four doctors performed a "transsphenoidal resection of the pituitary tumor." While removing the tumor, physicians determined it had destroyed Dolan's sellar region bone and filled his left sinus.

"The tumor was removed in piecemeal fashion," the lawsuit said.

Dolan was nonresponsive in recovery, and an MRI of his brain demonstrated damage. "Christopher thereafter had a stormy postoperative course with altered consciousness and gross neurological deficits," the lawsuit said. "He required a tracheostomy, feeding tube, and suffered multiple complications due to his severe neurological injury."

He ultimately was discharged from the UIHC more than a year later, on Jan. 17, 2018, "with ongoing major neurological deficits," including speech disturbance, paralysis, and other limitations.

Responding to the lawsuit, UI and state attorneys in court filings called the allegations an "incomplete summary of the extensive and detailed medical records"; suggested the Dolans failed to exhaust administrative remedies; and said something else could have contributed to Dolan's problems.

"Plaintiff may have failed to mitigate damages," according to the state's answer. "And any recovery by plaintiff should not include any loss which could have been prevented by reasonable care and diligence."

The state suggested Dolan's injuries "may have been caused by forces, acts, omissions, events, preexisting conditions, or causes outside the control of defendant."

By agreeing to pay $7.5 million, the state did not admit liability and settled the suit before it went to a jury.

'We did not defend her'

The State Appeal Board also approved Monday a settlement involving a pair of lawsuits over allegations that a neonatologist working in pediatrics at the UIHC "impermissibly and repeatedly" viewed another employee's medical records "with no legitimate medical purpose."

Brenda Heddens, who was working as a UIHC neonatal nurse practitioner, in May 2019 sued UIHC neonatologist Erica LeClair for accessing her medical records from 2014 to 2018 without permission. She also sued the state for negligence.

LeClair in August 2019 asked the state to seek to dismiss the case and asked a judge to find she was acting within the scope of her employment.

The IowaBoard of Medicine in October 2020 alleged 42-year-old LeClair "inappropriately accessed the medical records of patients who were not under her care while practicing medicine in Iowa City" and issued a citation, warning and $5,000 civil penalty. LeClair fulfilled the terms of her order in 2021 and has been cleared to practice medicine in Iowa.

This week's approved settlement totals $90,000 — but the state agreed to pay only $32,250 to Heddens for negligent supervision. LeClair must pay the remaining $57,750, the settlement said.

"We did not defend her or her conduct," a state attorney said during the Appeal Board meeting.

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