AUBURN — A Lewiston hospital is appealing a lower court jury verdict that awarded $200,000 in damages to a former patient who had been told he had a fatal form of cancer.

Laird Covey, then-president at Central Maine Medical Center, sent a letter to Wendell Strout of Greene in December 2009 sympathizing over the anguish the premature diagnosis caused him.

A judge presiding over Strout’s lawsuit in Androscoggin County Superior Court ruled that he would allow at trial a single sentence from that letter penned by Covey to Strout. Referring to the hospital’s doctor who met with Strout in the spring of 2009, Laird wrote: “He realizes now that, prior to sharing his clinical impressions with you, he needed to wait for the results of the biopsy to confirm what the cancer was.”

Attorneys for the hospital had argued that the entire letter, including that clause, should not be allowed at trial because the letter was not a record of fact. It was a “communication of sympathy or benevolence, and an offer to compromise and should therefore be excluded” under state law and rules of evidence, wrote attorney Christopher Nyhan, in his brief to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Therefore, Nyhan concluded, the judgment should be set aside and a new trial should be ordered. 

Oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for April 7 in Portland.

Scott Lynch, Strout’s attorney, argued in his brief to the high court that the excerpt from Covey’s letter was correctly allowed at trial by the lower court judge.

In April 2009, Dr. Ian Reight, a general surgeon at CMMC, told Strout that he had pancreatic cancer, a very aggressive form that would almost certainly end his life.

Strout was told “that his life will most likely be measured in months,” according to court papers. What Strout actually had, it turned out, was the less-menacing non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a more treatable form of the disease.

More than four years after Strout received that news, a jury in Androscoggin County Superior Court last June awarded him $200,000 in damages. Strout and his lawyer, Scott Lynch, had asked for $150,000.

Strout had sued CMMC for damages, citing “tremendous emotional distress” as well as lost income and loss of enjoyment.

In April and May 2009, Strout, now 48, thought his days were numbered, according to court papers. He began to prepare for the eventuality, taking time off from his job as animal control officer in Lewiston and surrounding municipalities. He sought to provide for his wife before dying.

Strout eventually got the good news that his affliction wasn’t as dire as initially believed. It was a great relief, Lynch said, but it also took a toll on the man emotionally. The CMMC physician had been much too quick to share his diagnosis, Lynch had argued in court.

It has been more than four years since Strout’s proper diagnosis, court papers said. He is currently considered to be in remission.

In Strout’s suit, Reight was accused of failing to procure pathology results prior to advising his patient that he “faced certain death,” court papers said.

The suit also claimed the doctor was negligent in interpreting the results of a CT scan.

Reight has since left CMMC to join another medical group.

According to Lynch, it was the first time in his experience that a jury in a civil trial awarded more money than what was asked for in the suit.

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