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Helling v. Carey

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff sued Defendants, alleging that Defendants’ negligence proximately caused the permanent damage to her eyes. The jury found in favor of Defendants. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment and Plaintiff petitioned to the state’s supreme court.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A “reasonable prudence” standard should be followed in medical diagnosis and treatment even when there is no requirement under generally accepted professional standards.

    Facts.

    Helling (Plaintiff) suffered from primary open angle glaucoma, a condition where fluids are unable to flow out of the eye. As a result, pressure gradually rises to a point where optic nerve damage results, as well as loss of vision. The condition comes with very few symptoms and is primarily detected through a pressure test performed on the eye. Plaintiff saw her ophthalmologists, Drs. Thomas Carey and Robert Laughlin (Defendants) for a number of years, including for regular appointments and the fitting of glasses and contact lenses. After years of seeing Defendants for what she believed were issues and irritation caused by her contact lenses, Carey tested her eye pressure and field of vision. It was determined that Plaintiff, then 32-years-old, had glaucoma resulting in some loss of vision. Plaintiff sued Defendants alleging, among other things, that defendants’ negligence proximately caused the permanent damage to her eyes. At trial, expert witnesses from both sides testified that the standards of the profession did not require a pressure test to be given to patients under the age of 40 to determine the presence of glaucoma because the disease rarely occurs in individuals in that age group. The jury found in favor of Defendants. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment and Plaintiff petitioned to the state’s supreme court.

    Issue.

    Whether defendants’ compliance with the standards of the medical specialty should insulate them from liability.

    Held.

    No. The court of appeals’ ruling is reversed. A “reasonable prudence” standard should be followed in medical diagnosis and treatment even when there is no requirement under generally accepted professional standards.

    Discussion.

    Although the incidence of glaucoma in individuals under the age of 40 is one out of 25,000 persons, that one person who suffers deserves the same protection as the others. The eye pressure test is simple and relatively inexpensive. Failure to administer it can result in severe and permanent injury and loss of vision. There is no doubt that the administration of this easy test to detect a potentially life-changing condition should, in fact, be undertaken. There are precautions so imperative that even their universal disregard will not excuse their omission.


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