Dr. M, 52, was a general practitioner whose office served a variety of patients. Saturdays were especially busy because patients often waited to come in on the weekend. On this particular Saturday, the waiting room was jammed, but one face jumped out at the physician.

It was Mr. F, 42, who had been in just the previous week complaining of diarrhea that had lasted for about four days. Dr. M called the patient into the office and quickly thumbed through his file. 

“Are you still having the same problem?” Dr. M asked.

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“Yes,” Mr. F said. “After our last visit, I took your advice and ate rice and a bland diet and it got somewhat better for a 
day or two, but then it started again.”

The patient complained of having diarrhea again for another period of three or four days. Dr. M asked the patient if anyone else in the household was ill or whether he had travelled out of the country recently. The answer to both questions was negative. Mr. F was otherwise healthy, had no underlying chronic illness, maintained an appropriate BMI, and reported exercising and eating a relatively healthy diet.

“Diarrhea is a very common problem,” Dr. M said. “There are a variety of causes, but in most cases it will just go away.” He then advised the patient to drink Pedialyte or Gatorade, and to call back if the condition failed to resolve. 

Persistent symptoms

A week later, the patient called to say he still was suffering from diarrhea and wanted to come in for a follow up appointment, but that he was scheduled to go on a weeklong family vacation.

“Can I schedule the appointment for next week, after I return?” he asked. “My two boys are so looking forward to this vacation.”

“Sure,” Dr. M said. “We’ll set up an appointment when you get back.”

Mr. F spent a week at the beach with his wife and two sons, but when they returned home, he told his family that he did not feel well and went to lie down. His sons found their father dead on the couch the following morning. 

Several months later, when Mr. F’s 
widow got over the shock of losing her 
husband, she decided to consult with a plaintiff’s attorney. 

“My husband had diarrhea for a month before he died. He went to the doctor twice, and called to make a third appointment, and all he was told to do was 
eat a bland diet. Shouldn’t more have been done?”

The attorney contacted a consulting physician who opined that Dr. M had been negligent in not taking a stool culture and blood test, and not monitoring for dehydration. “The cause of death was an electrolyte imbalance,” the consulting physician said. “This can and should have been prevented. The patient was suffering from diarrhea for weeks; the clinician should not have brushed it off so easily.”

The attorney told Mrs. F that he would take the case, and proceeded to file a lawsuit against Dr. M, alleging that his negligent treatment caused Mr. F’s death. 

Dr. M was appalled when he got word about the lawsuit. He immediately called the defense attorney provided by his insurance company. Over the next few months, depositions and discovery took place. It became clear that Mrs. F’s attorney was going to argue that Dr. M was responsible because he did not attempt to discover the underlying cause of the diarrhea or monitor the patient for dehydration, which is often the most dangerous aspect of diarrhea.

The plaintiff also alleged that advising the patient to drink Pedialyte was improper as it is made for children and would be inadequate to replenish electrolytes in adults. Dr. M’s attorney intended to argue that since the patient felt well enough to go on vacation, the situation was not that serious at the time he was treated by Dr. M.

As the jury was being selected, the parties finally reached an accord. Before the start of the trial, the case was settled for $1,875,000.