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$16.7 million award in cancer lawsuit

Verdict based on misread X-ray

A jury has awarded $16.7 million to the daughter of a Boston woman who died of lung cancer after a radiologist missed evidence of the cancer in a chest X-ray.

The verdict this month against Dr. Peter Clarke of Brigham and Women’s Hospital is the largest this year in a medical malpractice case in Massachusetts, lawyers said, and one of the largest in recent years.

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Johnette Ellis, 33, sued Clarke on behalf of her mother, Jeanne Ellis, who died in August 2008 at the age of 47.

Jeanne Ellis visited the Brigham emergency room in October 2006 with complaints of a persistent cough, according to lawyers for both sides. A doctor ordered a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia, which Clarke read and determined to be normal. Ellis was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection and prescribed antibiotics.

Thirteen months later, Ellis again visited the hospital after her symptoms worsened. Another doctor ordered a CT scan, which showed advanced lung cancer. Within seven months, the cancer spread to her kidney, liver, spine, and pubic bone before she died.

During the trial, the daughter’s lawyer, Robert M. Higgins, presented evidence that the original 2006 chest X-ray showed a 1.5-centimeter nodule in Ellis’ upper right lung, which grew to about 2.5 or 3 cm. by November 2007. Ellis also had many new nodules throughout her lungs that were not present at the time of the chest X-ray, Higgins said.

Clarke’s lawyer, Philip E. Murray, said he plans to ask Suffolk Superior Court Judge Bonnie MacLeod for a new trial. Murray said Clarke’s interpretation of the X-ray was appropriate and that the large award — $11 million in damages, plus interest — is not “very explainable.”

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Murray said Clarke was able to see areas of opacity in the chest X-ray when he reviewed it after Ellis’ cancer diagnosis, but those areas could have been attributed to a number of things, such as tissue structures or other organs. He said that a chest X-ray is not the best tool for spotting lung cancer and that Clarke was not provided with Ellis’s full medical history, which included a 30-year history of smoking and a mother who died of lung cancer.

Higgins, of the firm Lubin & Meyer, said the award is an acknowledgment of Johnette Ellis’s loss; she was her mother’s only child. In her testimony, Johnette Ellis talked about the close relationship she had with her mother, who raised her as a single mother. Johnette Ellis declined to comment.

“They had a very unique relationship, and the jury understood that,” Higgins said. “Lung cancer is a bad way to die, and she suffered significantly.”

Clarke declined to be interviewed, but the hospital released a statement. “The Brigham and Women’s Hospital community extends our sincere sympathies to Johnette Ellis for the loss of her mother,” the statement said. “We believe that Dr. Clarke acted in accordance with the diagnostic standards of care and that, sadly, Ms. Ellis’s cancer was incurable at the time Dr. Clarke became involved in her care.”

Yasmeen Abutaleb can be reached at yasmeen.abutaleb@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @yabutaleb7.

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