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Jury debates biopsy lawsuit

A malpractice suit seeking nearly $700,000 from MeritCare Health Systems for the post-surgery death of a 71-year-old Finley, N.D., man went to a jury Monday.

A malpractice suit seeking nearly $700,000 from MeritCare Health Systems for the post-surgery death of a 71-year-old Finley, N.D., man went to a jury Monday.

Deliberations began in Cass County District Court after six days of testimony from doctors, experts and the son of Roy Haugtvedt, who died from internal bleeding on July 20, 2000, one hour after a liver biopsy at Fargo's MeritCare Hospital.

At issue is whether the biopsy, which was done to test a large liver mass for cancer, was a necessary risk for Haugtvedt, who was on blood thinning drugs following heart surgery.

Family attorney Keith Miller said poor communication between doctors led to the biopsy, which later found the liver mass benign. The MeritCare team should have known through tests that cancer was unlikely and chosen less intrusive tests to find the cause of Haugtvedt's abdominal pain and shortness of breath, Miller said.

Even if doctors found Haugtvedt's tissue mass -- which was one-third the size of his liver -- to be cancerous, his prognosis wouldn't have changed much, Miller said. At least he would have had another six months to a year with his family, he said.

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"What was the rush?" Miller asked the jury. "As a result of that substandard care, Roy Haugtvedt is dead."

A hired farm hand for 45 years in Steele County, Haugtvedt retired in 1997 to spend more time at his Finley home with his wife, Agnes. For years the two mowed the lawn at their church, Ostervold Lutheran.

MeritCare attorney Wayne Carlson said Haugtvedt underwent methodical testing to find the cause for his discomfort three weeks after a coronary artery bypass. The biopsy was necessary to rule out cancer when the suspicious tissue mass was found, he said.

And though the blood thinners made the surgery riskier, Carlson said, they weren't enough to discard the operation.

"Do you just wait?" Carlson asked jurors. "[Do you] hope that he gets better and just not do anything?"

Evidence during the trial also showed there was no failure to communicate between staff, Carlson said. The care Haugtvedt received at MeritCare was the kind everyone should expect in a hospital, he said.

The Haugtvedts did not name a doctor in their lawsuit. A MeritCare spokeswoman declined to comment until after the verdict.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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