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A Shred of Evidence

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San Francisco, CASan Francisco attorney Chris Dolan is on a noon hour break from a medical malpractice trial:72-year-old Diane Stewart, a mother and a grandmother who liked to swim and help out at her local church went into the hospital to have two knee replacements. Forty-eight hours later, she went into shock and died.

SurgeonShe had complained to hospital staff about pain in her abdomen, her blood pressure was dropping and her bladder stopped working. Hospital staff decided she needed more pain medication but the autopsy revealed Stewart died from a bowel blockage. Diagnosed in time, bowel blockages do not need to be life threatening.

"Hospital records are part of this suit," says attorney Chris Dolan, who has filed a medical malpractice wrongful death suit on behalf of the Stewart family. "I have records from Stanford University Hospital indicating that some of the records have been deleted. The hospital medical board has found them in violation for doing so."

Of course hospital records are almost always involved in medical malpractice cases and it is always high on the list of things that Dolan looks for when preparing a case. "Unfortunately, I think a lot of doctors go back and change their medical records to cover their butts," says Dolan, who is known as an effective lawyer often called on to take cases other lawyers won't touch. "I have another ongoing case right now involving the testimony of a nurse and I have a finding from the medical board that she altered and falsified her records. In fact she testified that she did."

Dolan can barely contain his outrage as he talks about another medical malpractice suit he's working on where records seem to have gone astray. "A forensic examiner has indicated there are destroyed records in this case as well."

Those records obviously have things to say that medical staff sometimes don't want to admit to. Dolan frequently hires medical document examiners to review hospital documents, looking for signs that files may have been adulterated or purged. "You can see the writing is smaller or different, or things are written in the margin," says Dolan. "If a doctor does change records there are established procedures. They are supposed to cross it out and write 'error'.

"Sometimes we have to hire professionals to tell us what's missing from the file and by that I mean entire categories of information such as notes on nurse shift changes," Dolan adds.

If you suspect something is wrong, Dolan advises people to get all the information they can before they leave the hospital. "Hospitals won't give you the original records without a subpoena, so photograph them with your cell phone if you have to."

In one of Dolan's cases, a woman demanded the hospital records the night her mother died. "The police showed up and ordered the hospital to give them to her," says Dolan. "When we later got copies of the records, they had been changed! So, you can see it is important to do what you can."

Even if doctors and medical staff are later forced to admit the records were altered Dolan says it is rare to hear of charges being laid even though record tampering is a crime. "It is fraud and this is a profession that is supposed to be highly ethical and this is a felony," says Dolan.

Chris Dolan founded The Dolan Law firm in 1995 and has managed its growth from a sole proprietorship to a group of eight attorneys and 16 staff in downtown San Francisco. He is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and a member of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association.

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