Crime & Courts

Columbia doctor must pay $10 million in fatal cancer case, jury says

Joann Bannister
Joann Bannister Family photo

A Richland County jury has awarded $10 million to the husband of a woman who died of cancer after miscommunication between her doctors resulted in delays in surgery that would have saved her life, according to a lawsuit.

The medical malpractice award is against Dr. Philip Kinder and Columbia Urological Associates, who earlier had offered $250,000 to settle the case to the husband of the woman who died, according to legal papers at the Richland County Courthouse. That offer was rejected by the husband.

“Such a high award is unusual. It sounds like the jury was really trying to send a message that doctors need to take more care in following up on patient symptoms,” said Helen Haskell of the patient safety group Mothers Against Medical Error. Haskell’s son, Lewis, died at the Medical University of South Carolina after doctors failed to follow up on signs of impending death.

The $10 million award, which came after a weeklong trial, is to Adolph Bannister and his three children. He is the husband of Joann Bannister, who died in October 2012 at the age of 70. The jury considered its verdict for about three hours.

Bannister’s lawyer, Ed Bell, said, “Patients really trust their doctors, and they put their lives in their hands. Most of the time, it works. But what this case says is, when that trust is lost, juries get upset. Our system is designed a message so others will sit up and say, ‘We better pay more attention.’ 

Julius McKay and Kelli Sullivan, the lawyers for Kinder and Columbia Urological Associates, have filed a motion to overturn or reduce the verdict, saying there was “no justification” for the award.

To those who knew her, Bannister – a former assistant director of the EKG department at Palmetto Health Baptist – was a special person.

“On our first Sunday at Whaley Street United Methodist Church, Mrs. Joann gave us a warm welcome and sat with us,” Happy Meglino wrote in a funeral home guest book after her death. “As time went by, I noticed Mrs. Joann doing the same for all newcomers even if it was someone others might feel was undesirable.”

Chuck Beaman, chief executive of the Palmetto Health hospital system that includes Baptist, wrote, “I had the privilege of working with her for over 20 years at Baptist Hospital.”

In 2010, Bannister was receiving primary care from Dr. Jerry Robinson and urological care from Kinder, according to her husband’s lawsuit.

Both doctors were tracking a noncancerous growth on Bannister’s left kidney, and Kinder began planning for surgery to remove all or part of her kidney. But Kinder put off the surgery, as well as other treatments to deal with that growth, according to the lawsuit.

In April 2011, Robinson noted the growth on Bannister’s kidney “may ultimately require” the removal of all or part of her kidney. He recommended a follow-up in six months.

Four months later, in August 2011, Bannister complained of low back pain and saw Robinson again. He ordered a computerized scan. Its image showed the growth on her left kidney had increased.

The radiologist recommended “follow up and/or evaluation ... to exclude ... underlying malignancy,” according to the lawsuit.

However, that recommendation was not communicated to Kinder, the lawsuit said.

In June 2012, Robinson ordered another scan, which found the mass on her left kidney had continued to grow.

The radiologist reported “this is absolutely ... malignant,” the lawsuit said. However, the malignancy aggressively had advanced into other parts of Bannister’s body.

Bannister then went to a cancer specialist, “but the cancer was too advanced and caused her death on Oct. 1, 2012,” the lawsuit alleged.

“At least up to August 2011, surgical intervention more likely than not would have prevented Mrs. Bannister’s death from cancer,” the lawsuit said. Kinder “failed to timely follow-up and intervene” during the window of time when intervention likely would have saved her life, it added.

Originally, Robinson was a defendant in the lawsuit.

But he was dismissed from the case without any finding of fault. His medical practice, Columbia Medical Associates, settled for $350,000 but did not admit any fault.

Bell said Bannister’s death easily could have been avoided. “Kidney cancers are 94 percent curable – one of the most curable cancers out there.”