Chiropractic malpractice and cancer care

A new case sheds light on malpractice liability that may attach to chiropractors treating patients with serious medical conditions.

New York Legal Update reports on a case of chiropractic malpractice involving a patient with cancer:

Are chiropractors qualified to diagnose cancer? If they fail to diagnose cancer, are they liable for medical malpractice? A case from the Second Department last week illustrates that it is probably unwise to even ask your chiropractor if certain symptoms could be cancerous. The case was Patrella v Atlantic Chiropractic Group, 2007 NY Slip Op 05710. In that case, the plaintiff had been treated by a chiropractic group for approximately a month. As part of the treatment, one chiropractor had taken X-rays of the plaintiff's spine, which he used to diagnose a narrowing of vertebral discs. When he was reviewing the X-ray film, the plaintiff asked the chiropractor if certain abdominal pain she was feeling could be cancer. The chiropractor responded that there was nothing on the X-ray film to indicate the presence of cancer. The plaintiff was subsequently treated by a neurologist and several other physicians, none of whom diagnosed her with cancer. She finally was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix approximately a year later. The plaintiff then commenced a medical malpractice action against her chiropractors.

At trial, a chiropractic expert for the plaintiff testified that the defendants departed from good and accepted chiropractic practices by attempting to diagnose cancer, and by failing to refer the plaintiff to an internist or general surgeon. A chiropractic expert for the defendants characterized the idea that the defendants were attempting to diagnose cancer as "absurd," and testified that they did not depart from accepted practices. In addition, an oncologist who testified as an expert for the plaintiffs, admitted that there was no evidence of cancer on the X-ray films, but also testified that X-rays are not used to diagnose cancer.

A jury returned a verdict for the defendant chiropractors. The Second Department affirmed the jury's verdict stating there was a valid line of reasoning by which the jury could have concluded that the defendants did not depart from good and accepted chiropractic practice, and that the jury was entitled to credit the testimony of the defendants' expert over that of the plaintiffs' expert.

Note that when chiropractic overlaps with medical care (as in reading x-rays), the standard of care overlaps--that is, a medical expert may be allowed to testify.

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