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, his attorneys report. The plaintiff’s recovery was ultimately reduced to $1.2 million due to comparative fault.
John Kassel and Theile McVey of Columbia represented 61-year-old Tom Lovelace, whose local dentist referred him to oral surgeon Dr. Mark Billman to evaluate a lesion on Lovelace’s tongue. The local dentist was concerned about possible cancer, but Billman believed that the lesion was caused by a sharp wisdom tooth, and suggested that Lovelace have the tooth polished or extracted. Billman didn’t schedule a follow-up, mention any possible cancer to the referring dentist, or express urgency in having the tooth fixed, Kassel said.
Lovelace had the tooth polished but returned to the dentist seven months later when the lesion became painful. The dentist again referred Lovelace to Billman, who extracted the tooth and performed a biopsy, which revealed stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma.
Among other procedures, Lovelace had his lymph nodes and much of his tongue removed and underwent constructive surgery and six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. Kassel said that Lovelace, 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.
Lovelace 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 Billman 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 Billman claimed to have told Lovelace 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.
Dr. Michael Lechelop, Billman’s expert witness and an oral surgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina, testified that he didn’t believe that Billman breached the standard of care and that any follow-up should have been done by the referring dentist. But after reviewing the medical chart, Lechelop said that he believed Billman 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 Lovelace 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 Lovelace $2 million with a finding of 40 percent comparative fault on June 18. Kassel said that while the jury didn’t believe that Lovelace was told about the potential cancer, it was concerned that Lovelace waited too long to get the tooth fixed.
Billman was represented by Joe Tierney of Rogers Townsend and Matthew Coles of Coles Barton. Neither attorney immediately returned a request for comment, but Kassel said that post-trial motions are pending.
VERDICT REPORT — MEDICAL MALPRACTICE
Amount: $2 million (reduced to $1.2 million due to comparative fault)
Injuries alleged: Loss of lymph nodes and most of tongue, disfiguration, loss of income
Case name: Lovelace v. The Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Dr. Mark Billman
Court: York County Circuit Court
Case No.: 2019-CP-46-01736
Judge: William McKinnon
Date of verdict: June 18
Demand: $2 million
Highest offer: None
Most helpful experts: Dr. Thomas Spalla and Dr. Ray Fonseca
Attorneys for plaintiff: John Kassel and Theile McVey of Columbia
Attorneys for defendant: Joe Tierney of Rogers Townsend in Charleston and Matthew Coles of Coles Barton in Lawrenceville, Georgia