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Undiagnosed Tongue Cancer Leads to $2M Verdict

A York County jury has awarded $2 million to a man whose tongue cancer was misdiagnosed as tooth trauma, leading to several painful, disfiguring surgeries. The plaintiff’s recovery was ultimately reduced to $1.2 million due to comparative fault. John Kassel and Theile McVey of Columbia represented a 61-year-old man, whose local dentist referred him to an oral surgeon to evaluate a lesion on his tongue. The local dentist was concerned about possible cancer, but the oral surgeon believed that the lesion was caused by a sharp wisdom tooth, and suggested that the man have the tooth polished or extracted.

The oral surgeon didn’t schedule a follow-up, mention any possible cancer to the referring dentist, or express urgency in having the tooth fixed, Kassel said. The man (Kassel’s client) had the tooth polished but returned to the dentist seven months later when the lesion became painful. The dentist again referred the man to the oral surgeon, who extracted the tooth and performed a biopsy, which revealed stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma.

Among other procedures, the man had his lymph nodes and much of his tongue removed and underwent constructive surgery and six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. Kassel said his client, an airline pilot, lost the last three years of his flying career, had to relearn to eat and speak, and worried about diminished life expectancy.

He argued that the lesion should have been considered cancerous until proven otherwise, and that the cancer could have been detected and removed through a process requiring just a few dissolvable sutures had the oral surgeon scheduled a timely follow-up appointment.

A lesion caused by a sharp tooth would have quickly healed, but a cancerous lesion wouldn’t have healed, Kassel said. “Excising a pre-cancer would end the story,” Kassel said. “Without a pre-cancerous lesion, there would be nothing left to develop into an invasive cancer with all its destruction.” Kassel said that the surgeon claimed to have told his client about the possible cancer because it was his habit to inform all of his patients. But that claim was contradicted by office notes and the letter to the referring dentist, Kassel said.

The oral surgeon’s expert witness (also an oral surgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina), testified that he didn’t believe that the oral surgeon breached the standard of care and that any follow-up should have been done by the referring dentist. But after reviewing the medical chart, the expert witness said that he believed the oral surgeon never mentioned cancer because he didn’t think it was cancer. “That was a pivotal fact in the case in a he said-he said situation,” Kassel said. Kassel said that his client would never have risked the lives of 200 passengers on each flight by ignoring a cancer warning.

After a week-long trial, the jury deliberated for four-and-a-half hours before awarding Kassel’s client $2 million with a finding of 40 percent comparative fault on June 18. Kassel said that while the jury didn’t believe that his client was told about the potential cancer, it was concerned that his client waited too long to get the tooth fixed.

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