It's not unusual to hear about a medical professional sued for wrongful death. Far less regularly, one of those cases will reach a state's Supreme Court.

It’s not unusual to hear about a medical professional sued for wrongful death. Far less regularly, one of those cases will reach a state’s Supreme Court.

Missouri’s highest court will hear such a case originating out of Hannibal on Wednesday, Oct. 21.

The crux of Mickels v. Danrad addresses a single issue: Are doctors/medical providers liable for wrongful death if negligence causes or contributes to the death of an individual at a particular time, even though evidence exists that said individual would have died a later time, such as in the case of a terminal illness?

The case centers around the death of Joseph Mickels in June 2009.

 

The facts

Both sides agree on the basic facts of the case:

•Radiologist Dr. Raman Danrad reviewed an MRI of Mickels’ brain on Dec. 12, 2008, and did not detect a brain tumor.

•Danrad reviewed a CT study of Mickels’ brain on Feb. 17, 2009, and detected a brain tumor, which turned out to be one of the most aggressive forms of brain tumors.

•Mickels underwent brain surgery on Feb. 20, 2009.

•Mickels died on June 12, 2009.

•The type of cancerous brain tumor Mickels had would have resulted in death if detected either in December 2008 or February 2009.

Mickels’ wife Ruth and four children allege in the lawsuit that because Danrad didn’t detect a brain tumor on Dec. 12, 2008, Mickels suffered a premature death.

The case originally went before Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd in February 2014. Bringer Shepherd issued a summary judgment in favor of Danrad — in essence saying the plaintiffs didn’t meet the burden of proof to have a wrongful death claim. The Appellate Court affirmed Bringer Shepherd’s decision. The Mickels family then appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

For a plaintiff to have a medical negligence case, evidence must support there was a connection between the act — in this case, Danrad not detecting a tumor on Dec. 12, 2008 — and the injury, in this case, death on June 12, 2009. The causation of Mickels’ death is a major point of contention in this case.

Plaintiffs’ argument

The Mickels’ attorneys argue in briefs filed with the Supreme Court that evidence supports Danrad’s failure to detect a brain tumor caused death on June 12, 2009, and that a wrongful death lawsuit is not bound by time.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs cite several cases in which a jury awarded damages “if a medical professional’s negligent procedure accelerated the decedent’s death.” They argue Danrad’s negligence hastened Mickels’ death. Dr. Carl Freter, Mickels’ oncologist, testified that Mickels would have lived on average six months longer had Danrad identified a brain tumor in December 2008.

The plaintiffs do not have to prove that the subject would live indefinitely, as that is impossible, but rather that the subject would not have died at that time, regardless of how much longer the subject would have lived, attorneys argue.

They say that the issue must be decided by a jury trial, as there is enough evidence to support a wrongful death claim.

Defendant’s argument

Attorneys for Danrad argue in briefs that Bringer Shepherd made the correct call in issuing a summary judgment. They cite cases that set Missouri precedent that a wrongful death claim “does not exist in the context of a medical negligence action for failure to diagnose, where the decedent had a terminal illness...”

They argue legal precedent mandating that a negligent action must be the cause of the individual’s death. In this case, defense attorneys say expert testimony indicates Mickels would have died of a brain tumor, not because of Danrad’s failure to catch said brain tumor.

They say the lawsuit fails the “but for” test, meaning “but for the defendant’s actions or inactions, the decedent would not have died.” Wollen v. DePaul Health Center, a Missouri case in 1992, examined the causation between failure to timely diagnose a patient’s cancer and the patient’s death. The court then ruled in favor of the DePaul Health Center, dismissing the notion that the defendant’s negligence caused the harm.

Danrad’s “contribution” to Mickels’ death isn’t supported by legal precedent, attorneys argue.

What’s next

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday, Oct. 21. The seven-person court will discuss the case and render a decision. A decision will not likely come for several months after attorneys present arguments.

The Mickels family is being represented by attorneys with Gray, Ritter & Graham in St. Louis. Danrad is represented by attorneys with Wasinger, Parham, Morthland, Terrell & Wasinger in Hannibal.

Reach editor Eric Dundon at eric.dundon@courierpost.com .