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President, Directors of Georgetown College v. Wheeler

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 19, 2013

Crystal WHEELER, Appellee.

Argued May 7, 2013.

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James P. Gleason, Jr., with whom Joanna Jesperson, Washington, DC, was on the brief, for appellants, President and Directors of Georgetown College.

Steven A. Hamilton, with whom Karen S. Karlin and Matthew D. Banks, Bethesda, MD, were on the brief for appellant, Dr. Marilyn McPherson-Corder.

Melissa Rhea, with whom Sandra H. Robinson, Harlow R. Case, and Jack H. Olender, Washington, DC, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, BLACKBURNE-RISGBY, Associate Judge, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

BELSON, Senior Judge:

This is an appeal by a hospital and a physician from a large judgment against them in a medical malpractice case. Appellee Crystal Wheeler suffered various medical complications as the result of a Rathke's cleft cyst behind her left eye, which went undetected for nearly ten years despite its appearance on a 1996 MRI report. Wheeler brought a medical-malpractice suit against the appellants, Marilyn McPherson-Corder, M.D., and the President and Directors of Georgetown College (" Georgetown" ), claiming that their negligence caused the cyst to go undiscovered. Following a lengthy trial in Superior Court, a jury awarded Wheeler more than $2.5 million in damages. Dr. McPherson-Corder and Georgetown now appeal, making four arguments: (1) the jury's verdict was irreconcilably inconsistent, in that it found that the appellants' negligent failure to detect the cyst was a proximate cause of Wheeler's injuries, but also found that Wheeler's own failure to follow up on the 1996 MRI report, while negligent, was not a proximate cause; (2) the trial court erred by admitting Wheeler's proffered expert testimony, as her experts' conclusion that her cyst caused certain gastrointestinal problems has not been generally accepted in the medical scientific community; (3) Wheeler's counsel made improper and prejudicial statements during her closing argument; and (4) the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

We reject the appellants' first argument because they waived their objection to any alleged inconsistency by failing to raise the issue before the jury's dismissal. We find their second argument lacking, as it misstates our standard for the admission of expert testimony. We likewise find their third argument unpersuasive, as we see no impropriety in Wheeler's counsel's remarks. We do, however, find merit in one aspect of appellant's argument on the weight of the evidence, i.e., insofar as it relates to the jury's award of greater future medical costs than the evidence established. Because the jury awarded $19,450

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more than the record supports, we remand with instructions that the trial court amend its order to reduce the award in that amount. In all other respects, we affirm.


Wheeler has long suffered from a litany of health problems, including serious gastrointestinal difficulties. At several times in her youth, she was hospitalized due to extreme nausea and vomiting. These problems persisted throughout her adolescence, and have lasted well into her adult life.

In 1996, Wheeler began attending college in southern Virginia. When she returned home to Washington, D.C., the following summer, she complained of severe headaches to her then-pediatrician, Dr. Marilyn McPherson-Corder. Accordingly, Dr. McPherson-Corder referred her to a Georgetown University Hospital pediatric neurologist, Dr. Yuval Shafrir.

Dr. Shafrir saw Wheeler twice that summer, once on July 8, and again on August 5. During the first visit, Wheeler was also experiencing leg and ear pain. Because of these other maladies, Dr. Shafrir was unable to fully diagnose her headaches. He prescribed medication for her ear pain, which he concluded was the result of an ear infection, and asked her to come back in a few weeks when her symptoms cleared. When she returned, Dr. Shafrir diagnosed her headaches as migraines. Accordingly, he instructed her on migraine management, prescribed medication, and asked her to keep a headache diary. He also noticed " a new complete blurring of [Wheeler's] right optic disk," which prompted him to give her a prescription and tell her to arrange an EKG and an MRI through her primary-care physician.

The parties dispute exactly what Dr. Shafrir told Wheeler about these tests. At trial, Wheeler testified that Dr. Shafrir told her that both procedures were merely " precautionary," and that he would contact her if there were " any concerns with the MRI." Dr. Shafrir, however, testified that while he does not have any independent memory of Wheeler's visits, he " always" told patients to contact him within three days of having an MRI if they did not hear from him. He also testified that whenever he ordered an MRI he would instruct the patient to come back for a follow-up visit. He said that this system, which placed the onus on the patient to follow up on test results, had " never" failed him. He testified that it would be " impossible" for him to track down every result independently, in light of the system he used for having patients get an MRI.

After Wheeler's second visit, Dr. Shafrir wrote to Dr. McPherson-Corder, informing her that he asked Wheeler to undergo an MRI and EKG. Although he indicated that he had already received the EKG results, which came back " normal," he did not mention any MRI results. He also wrote that he would " like to see [Wheeler] again in my office during her next college vacation."

Wheeler obtained a referral for the MRI from Dr. McPherson-Corder's office. She then had the MRI performed at Georgetown Hospital on August 16. This MRI revealed a 3-5 mm supersellar cyst behind her left eye— likely a Rathke's pouch cyst. At the time, the cyst was not pressuring her pituitary gland, hypothalamus, or her optic chiasm. Neither Dr. McPherson-Corder nor Dr. Shafrir ever saw the results of this MRI during the time relevant to this proceeding.

Wheeler's gastrointestinal issues troubled her throughout college. She continued to struggle with nausea, vomiting, and low appetite. After her graduation in 2000,

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her symptoms only worsened. She began losing weight, required at least four gastric-emptying procedures, and on several occasions had to be hospitalized. Eventually, her condition deteriorated to the point that her doctors were forced to insert a feeding tube. In 2003, she was diagnosed with ...

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