D.C. Jury Awards $5 Million for Failure to Screen for Cancer

A District of Columbia Superior Court jury recently awarded more than $5 million to the family of a man who died of colon cancer last year, finding that his doctor was liable for failing to properly screen him for cancer for 16 years.

Ronald Berger, 69, died in December following four years of chemotherapy treatment. From 1992 until his diagnosis in 2008, however, Berger’s family claimed that his Washington-based doctor, Dr. Francis Chucker, failed to perform the full scope of screening laid out in guidelines from national health organizations. Berger’s family filed a lawsuit alleging malpractice against Chucker in July 2010.

The trial began June 11 and the jury began deliberating on June 20. They returned a verdict the next day in favor of Berger’s family, awarding $5.36 million. The Berger family’s attorney, Julia Arfaa of Baltimore, said the large award was justified by the evidence the jury heard about Berger’s painful experience with chemotherapy in the years after he was diagnosed.

“I’m so happy for the family because they definitely deserve it,” she said, adding that Berger’s “last few years were hell.” Arfaa was trying the case on contract for Baltimore’s Wais, Vogelstein & Bedigian.

Chucker’s attorney, Daniel Costello of Wharton Levin Ehrmantraut & Klein in Annapolis, Md., said he thought it was “unfortunate” that the jury allowed their sympathy for the Berger family “to govern the evaluation of the evidence.” He said he planned to file a post-trial motion, based in part on what he characterized as an inflammatory comment made by the plaintiffs’ side in closing arguments; he noted that the judge sustained his objection to that comment. Chucker could not immediately be reached.

Arfaa said in the 16 years before Berger’s diagnosis, Chucker only did limited testing for colon cancer, despite the fact that Berger was at a higher risk after he turned 50. Chucker also failed to order a colonoscopy on several occasions when Berger reported certain symptoms, including rectal bleeding.

At trial, Arfaa said she thought that testimony that Berger had recorded before his death likely helped sway the jury. According to Arfaa, the defense argued that Berger bore some of the responsibility to schedule a colonoscopy, but Arfaa said she countered that Berger had relied on Chucker’s claims that he was already screening him for colon cancer.

“I just think it was a very strong case…about what someone should expect from their doctor,” she said.

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