Jury awards $11.3 million to woman whose IVF doc missed cancer diagnosis

Burlington, MA woman sues " in vitro fertilization" clinic doctor for negligence in failing to detect malignant ovarian cancer

By Travis Andersen, Globe Staff, October 28, 2014

A Middlesex County jury has awarded $9.5 million to a Burlington woman who sued her doctor at a Waltham fertility clinic for failing to detect her ovarian cancer, which has progressed to an advanced stage, according to court records and her attorney.

The award on Monday for Cristen Lebel, 41, of Burlington, and her husband, Russell, increased to $11.3 million with interest, according to her lawyer, William Thompson, of the Boston firm Lubin & Meyer, P.C.

Thompson said Lebel is now being treated for stage 3 advanced ovarian cancer.

“It’s been pretty terrible,” Lebel said in a phone interview. “I don’t know when the [treatment] protocol is going to stop working. It’s tough, in that sense, but we try to enjoy life and each other while we have the time to do that.”

According to court records, Lebel accused Dr. Kim Thornton, a physician at the Waltham clinic of Boston IVF, of negligence in failing to take a number of steps to detect her cancer from June 2008 through May 2009.

Thornton allegedly failed to recognize Lebel’s “signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer,” and also failed to order testing to “rule out malignancy,” Lebel’s attorneys argued in court documents.

“Mrs. Lebel will more likely than not suffer a premature and preventable death from her ovarian cancer,” her lawyers wrote.

Attempts to reach Thornton and Boston IVF, which operates more than a dozen fertility clinics in New England and elsewhere, were unsuccessful.

A lawyer for Thornton, Susan Donnelly Murphy of the Boston firm Murphy & Riley, P.C., pushed back against the verdict.

“We are very disappointed with the jury’s verdict and shocked by the award,” Murphy wrote in an e-mail Monday. “While we sympathize deeply with Mr. and Mrs. Lebel for what they have endured, the credible evidence offered at trial on behalf of Dr. Thornton established that she complied with the standard of care in treating Mrs. Lebel for fertility issues and that nothing she did or failed to do in any way altered the course of her unfortunate cancer diagnosis.”

Asked if Thornton plans to appeal, Murphy wrote that “we will pursue the available legal options to address the verdict.”

Thornton has made no prior payments for any malpractice claims in Massachusetts, according to online records of the state Board of Registration in Medicine. She also has no disciplinary record with the board.

Lebel said chemotherapy has affected her energy level and ability to concentrate, among other issues. She said her doctors have not indicated when her treatment regimen may stop working.

“I don’t think I want to know,” she said. “I just kind of follow ... what they’re suggesting, and so far, so good.”

Lebel added that in the future, she hopes fertility doctors will “at least consider a little more than just their protocol” when evaluating patients.

Boston IVF physicians are affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, according to the IVF website. Neither Boston IVF nor Beth Israel were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Doctor Kenneth Sands, Beth Israel’s chief quality officer, said in a statement that patient safety is the hospital’s top priority.

“We are dedicated to providing the highest quality care possible,” Sands said. “Our thoughts are with Ms. Lebel and her family. However, we are unable to comment further about this ongoing legal case.”

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