Case Resolution: Failure to Diagnose Aortic Dissection

Written by Atlee Hall

A team of attorneys and other professionals from Atlee Hall have successfully concluded a wrongful death and survival claim against an emergency room physician who failed to diagnose the decedent’s dissecting thoracic aorta, which resulted in the patient’s death less than 24 hours after he was discharged from the emergency room.

The aorta is the main artery leaving the heart. It is a tube-like structure that is constructed of 3 layers of tissue. When a defect, or tear develops in the innermost layer, blood that is circulating through the aorta works its way in between these tissue layers of the aorta, causing them to separate. As the tissue layers separate, they weaken. Ultimately the outermost layer of tissue ruptures, and the patient dies almost immediately. The objective for treating anyone with a dissecting aorta is to diagnose this dynamic condition before the rupture occurs. If diagnosed in time, emergency surgery can be undertaken to repair the aorta. Such surgery is successful in over 80% of cases. Conversely, sending the patient home from the emergency room without making the diagnosis reduces the patient’s chances of survival to virtually zero.

Plaintiffs were able to demonstrate that while in the emergency department, the patient complained of chest pain and shortness of breath, two symptoms that should have raised the possibility the patient was experiencing a dissecting aorta. Instead of ordering any test that would rule in or rule out that life-threatening condition, the defendant physician instead assumed the patient had a mild case of pneumonia, and sent him home on antibiotics.

This 50-year-old decedent was survived by his wife and his minor son, who is profoundly autistic. Plaintiff’s attorneys developed and submitted a life care plan for the minor son, which included intensive treatments that were now needed because of the loss of the child’s beloved father.

According to the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, once every 9 minutes a patient dies because of a missed or delayed diagnosis. This case was yet another example of that tragic reality. Although this monetary recovery will never take the place of a beloved husband and father, it will at least help ease any financial pressures that have been created as a result of his passing.