A Rockland County jury awarded $3.4 million to the family of Michael McKenzie, who was discharged from the Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern in 2007 after complaining of chest pains and other symptoms consistent with a serious heart problem. The hospital determined that McKenzie, 49, was not having a heart attack, then ER doctor Michael Kane diagnosed him with a muscle strain and sent him home with muscle relaxers.
Two days later, McKenzie was found dead in his house by his 10-year-old son, killed by an aortic aneurysm.
The hospital should have found the aneurysm, argued Anthony DiPietro, the attorney for McKenzie’s family.” They just blew it,” says DiPietro. “He had textbook signs of an aortic dissection [bleeding into the wall of the main artery that carries blood from the heart]: Chest pain, back pain, shortness of breath, sudden onset, woke him up from sleep, and he wasn’t doing any activities when it happened.”
Compounding the hospital’s error, McKenzie had a history of heart problems that should have pointed them toward the correct diagnosis. In 2003, he had been diagnosed with a dilated aortic root, or enlarged artery, which is a huge red flag for a future rupture. Good Samaritan knew about the dilated root because they had noted it in his chart during a heart procedure McKenzie had undergone the year before his death.
But the doctor, who had been at the hospital less than a month and was working unsupervised, never knew about McKenzie’s history. Why not? Because he didn’t know how to use the hospital’s electronic medical records system.
“He admitted it as part of his deposition,” DiPietro says. “They equivocated. First, they said the system wasn’t working, but then he said he really didn’t know how to use it yet.” According to a local news report, the doctor was certified in obstetrics and gynecology at the time and didn’t receive his certificate in emergency medicine until the following year.
The Outcome of the Case
The hospital argued that the aneurysm wasn’t present when McKenzie visited their ER–despite the fact that his certificate of death stated it had been present for days. The hospital also claimed that McKenzie was responsible for his own death because he didn’t explain his medical history thoroughly enough– the same history that was documented in the hospital’s own records. In fact, in a highly unusual move, the judge in the case allowed doctors to recount conversations they had with McKenzie to the jury, statements usually prohibited under New York’s “Dead Man’s Statute” designed to keep hearsay out of the courtroom.
The tilted playing field notwithstanding, the jury nevertheless found the hospital negligent and awarded $3.4 million to McKenzie’s widow, two adult daughters, and now 14-year-old son. The money couldn’t come soon enough – the widow, now the sole provider for her son, recently lost her job and their home went into foreclosure. “Hopefully this will allow them to keep the house,” DiPietro says.
A Good Samaritan spokesperson said the hospital plans to appeal.
By Aaron Kase
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