VA Hospital Missed a Lung Cancer Diagnosis, Suit Claims. It Settled for $850,000

The Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C.
The Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C. (Terry Glantz/The State/TNS)

An alleged failure to timely diagnose a veteran's lung cancer at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Dorn Medical Center in Columbia, S.C., has led to a settlement of $850,000 to his widow.

The settlement in the medical malpractice case of the late William Whitaker, an honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran, was approved by U.S. Judge Jacquelyn Austin at a Thursday morning hearing at the federal courthouse in Columbia.

Whitaker was 64 when he died in March 2022, more than 20 months after an initial VA hospital CT scan showed a small but suspicious mass in one of his lungs. He had served nine years in the Army, spent time in Germany and was a mechanic.

The federal government will pay $850,000 to Whitaker's widow, Anna Whitaker, from which $212,500 will go to the Columbia law firm of John Kassel, according to settlement documents. The lawyer's fee in this case was governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Anna Whitaker, who was married to William for 37 years, will split $603,000 received from the government with her adult son, William Alan Whitaker, according to the settlement.

Neither Dorn nor the federal government admitted any fault or liability.

"We disagree with some of the facts... but we think the settlement is in the best interests of the United States," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christie Newman told the judge. Newman handled the government's case with fellow government attorney Kimberly Hamlett.

A complaint in the case said that William Whitaker, a former smoker who suffered from advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, went to the VA hospital in June 2020, where a CT scan found a small bulla, or blister, in the left lung.

"The left lung findings were suspicious for cancer and required close follow up," the lawsuit said.

Whitaker had two more doctor's visits, one of them a telephone consultation, with medical staff who should have followed up -- but didn't -- on the growth detected in 2020, the lawsuit said.

Finally, more than 18 months later, in February 2022, Whitaker went to the VA hospital emergency room suffering from chest pains, coughing up blood, tender breast lumps and weight loss.

An examination found a large mass in his left lung, the lawsuit said.

Doctors diagnosed him with stage 3 lung cancer. They began chemotherapy. But a month later, he was dead.

VA doctors failed in numerous ways to follow up on the suspicious growth found in Whitaker's lungs in June 2020, the lawsuit alleged.

"Earlier intervention would have led to diagnosis of cancer at a time when the cancer was readily treatable," the lawsuit said.

At Thursday's hearing, Austin, South Carolina's newest federal judge, told Anna Whitaker she was "sorry for your loss" and said she found the settlement fair and reasonable.

A spokesman for Dorn could not be reached for comment.

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