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Kaiser Permanente must pay $5 million to patient

Arbitrators rule in favor of Timothy Howard, a former Valencia middle school administrator who was permanently disabled after physicians misdiagnosed his symptoms.

November 26, 2009|By Lisa Girion

Kaiser Permanente, the state's largest nonprofit HMO, has been ordered to pay a former Valencia middle school administrator $5 million after its physicians misinterpreted signs of an impending stroke that left him partially paralyzed and disabled for life.

An infection related to his subsequent treatment led to the amputation of both his legs.

A panel of three arbitrators ruled Nov. 18 in favor of Timothy Howard, who said Kaiser physicians were negligent for failing to properly diagnose the cause of his episodic blindness, headaches and other complaints.

Kaiser physicians in Panorama City, including a neurologist, diagnosed Howard, 48, with a migraine. As it turned out, Howard was suffering from a tear in the carotid artery, which was interrupting the main source of blood to his head.

If Howard had been treated promptly with medication, Howard's lawyer argued, the artery would have repaired itself within a few months. Instead, it went untreated for weeks, leading to a devastating stroke two years ago on Thanksgiving evening.

Kaiser acknowledged Wednesday that its physicians got the diagnosis wrong and apologized.

"We all agree that this is a terrible tragedy for Mr. Howard and his family, and all of them have our deepest sympathy," Kaiser spokesman Jim Anderson said.

"Physicians who initially saw him thought his symptoms pointed toward an opthalmic migraine," Anderson said. "It turned out he had a carotid dissection, which is unusual."

Kaiser took no disciplinary action against any physicians as a result of the case, Anderson said.

But, he added, the physicians involved reviewed the case and have learned from it.

"They are more vigilant when they encounter cases with the symptoms that Mr. Howard reported to them," Anderson said.

Robert Vaage, Howard's lawyer, said Kaiser physicians should have ruled out a carotid tear before coming to the conclusion that he was suffering from migraines. In men under 60, he said, the most common cause of the kind of blindness Howard experienced is a carotid tear.

"What happened to ruling out the worst potential cause first?" Vaage said. "All it took was one set of scans done within 24 to 48 hours, and Mr. Howard would have been back to work as an assistant principal. Instead, the Howards' lives are forever changed."

Kaiser requires its members to resolve complaints about their care in arbitration instead of the courts.

Most of the $5-million award, which is binding, is intended to cover the costs of ongoing medical and custodial care for Howard. He is partially paralyzed, relies on a wheelchair and is unable to work or care for himself.

For pain and suffering, the panel awarded Howard and his wife, Mary, each $250,000 -- the maximum allowed in California for noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, Vaage said.

The award is more than twice as much as the biggest arbitration ruling against Kaiser last year, according to a Kaiser annual report.

Vaage said he has brought a number of medical malpractice cases against Kaiser.

"This is one of the most tragic cases I've had in 25 years," Vaage said.

lisa.girion@latimes.com

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