Jury Finds Doctor ‘Negligent’ for Under-Treating Pain
An Alameda County jury on Wednesday found that Dr. Wing Chin, a physician at the Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, acted with "reckless negligence" by not adequately treating pain in a cancer patient, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The case stems from the 1998 death of William Bergman, who "consistently" complained of back pain while under Chin's care for lung cancer. Bergman's family filed suit and was awarded $1.5 million in general damages. However, the jury found that Chin did not act with malice, and no punitive damages were awarded (Yi, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/14). California law states that a family cannot seek damages for a patient's pain and suffering after the patient has died, but Bergman's children sued under a different state law that prohibits elder abuse (California Healthline, 5/7). William Bergman's daughter Beverly Bergman, said, "We're very grateful that the jury worked so hard. It'll send a message to the medical community that they cannot under-medicate without consequences" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 6/14). She added, "[The] verdict will never change the excruciating pain my father endured, but I hope that no other patient will have to suffer needlessly as my father did" (Compassion in Dying release, 6/13).
The Chronicle reports that the case was the first to define under-medicating a patient as elder abuse (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/14). Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion in Dying, which provided legal assistance to the Bergmans, said, "The message of this verdict is that the American public is no longer willing to tolerate such flagrant disregard of suffering" (Compassion in Dying release, 6/13). The verdict is expected to have "lasting effects" on pain management, the Chronicle reports. Dr. Scott Fishman, head of the University of California at Davis Medical Center's division of pain medicine, said of the verdict, "It worries me because the message is, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't." The Chronicle reports that "most doctors have erred on the side of under-medicating for fear of legal ramifications from potential addiction to pain killers." The verdict is expected to "fue[l] the fire" for a bill sponsored by state Assembly member Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), which would require California doctors to complete a pain management course (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/14).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.