A Prince George's County judge, saying he was shocked by the size of an $800,000 jury award to a Laurel woman who had been treated for cancer she did not have, gave her the option yesterday of accepting half the sum or having the case retried.
Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin stressed that he was not contesting the jury's finding last month that Dr. Lewis H. Dennis of Silver Spring mistakenly diagnosed Helena Blanchfield's illness as a terminal form of bone marrow cancer.
But Levin said at a hearing sought by Dennis' lawyers that the award seemed too large. "When you talk about $800,000," the judge remarked, "you expect to see somebody in a wheelchair, or somebody who has lost a leg or arm."
Blanchfield said at her trial in January that Dennis' upsetting news caused her to undergo agonizing chemotherapy treatment, quit her job as a school bus driver, break off her marriage plans and even make her own funeral arrangements.
Five months after Dennis told her she had only one month to a year left to live, Blanchfield traveled to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for a second opinion. Doctors there explained she never had cancer.
After learning of yesterday's ruling, Blanchfield, a 48-year-old divorced mother of four, said she was unsure if she would accept the reduced damages or sit through a second trial in hopes of persuading another jury to award her the full $800,000.
"I'm kind of shocked that the judge would feel less seriously about this than a panel of 12 jurors," she said in an interview. "I'm no longer the same person [as result of the misdiagnosis]. I will carry this the rest of my life."
At the nine-day trial, medical experts testified that Blanchfield was more likely to develop cancer because of the chemotherapy. Dennis, in turn, testified that the treatment he prescribed was too minimal to cause future medical problems.
In yesterday's ruling, Levin was not impressed with arguments that the chemotherapy posed future dangers. "Everybody is subject to increased risk of cancer even when you [receive X-rays] at the dentist," he said.
"I hardly think you get chemotherapy when you go to the dentist," Blanchfield replied in the interview.
Yesterday's hearing in Upper Marlboro followed a request by Dennis' lawyers for a new trial for a reduction in the $800,000 damages that the physician was ordered to pay. The award is believed to be the largest medical malpractice verdict in county history.
George Courtot, one of Dennis' lawyers, argued that the jury award was not based on proven injuries, but instead resulted from a "a prejudicial passion by the jury which was obviously swept up by the emotional issue of cancer."
In an inerview after Levin's decision, Dennis said he was disappointed that the judge failed to overturn the jury's finding that he misdiagnosed Blanchfield's illness. But he said he was pleased that a new trial was offered to rehear the case.
According to the court ruling yesterday Blanchfield has 12 days to decide whether she wants to chance a new trial or accept $400,000. One of her lawyers, Marvin Ellin, said the ruling was an "intrusion" into the jury's earlier findings.