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More women sue Salem pathology lab, alleging false breast cancer diagnoses

Following a wave of earlier suits, the litigation blames additional companies and doctors for women undergoing unnecessary chemotherapy
two women are pictured while receiving chemotherapy drugs in hospital
April 4, 2024

For a year, Shelley Clift underwent chemotherapy and other treatments that caused pain, discomfort and fatigue after her primary care physician told her that a lump on her left breast was a fast-growing form of cancer, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year. 

But in January 2022, Clift’s doctor became suspicious of the test used by Pacific Pathology Associates to diagnose her, and ordered the samples to be retested at a different laboratory. According to the suit, the results showed that Clift had a less-threatening form of cancer, and that her  treatment — which left her with lingering medical problems — had not been necessary. 

Clift’s is one of three new lawsuits filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court from women who underwent exhausting treatments as a result of allegedly faulty testing by Pacific Pathology, a prominent Salem laboratory.

The new filings follow a wave of lawsuits brought in late 2022 that are still playing out in court. In all, nine women have filed similar claims against the company.

The suits blame Pacific Pathology for not looking into whether it was finding an improbably high number of positive tests. The cases name individual pathologists allegedly involved in making diagnoses, as well as Pacific Pathology’s parent company, Sonic Healthcare USA, a subsidiary of Australia-based Sonic Healthcare. a multinational laboratory services company based in Australia..

Both Pacific Pathology and Sonic Healthcare did not respond to requests for comment on the litigation, and nor did Jennifer Oetter, an attorney representing Pacific Pathology in Oregon.

In court, Pacific Pathology has denied any lab errors or role in diagnosis. The only pathologist to respond in court, Daryl Vogel, has denied wrongdoing as well.

Researchers have disagreed on questions regarding the overtreatment, misdiagnosis and overdiagnosis of breast cancer. They’ve debated in medical journals on the appropriate frequency of mammograms. Some physicians recommend that slow-growing cancer cells be monitored rather than treated. 

In February, local Fox affiliate KPTV reported that Jeffrey Harter, a pathologist with Providence Health & Services, gave incorrect lab results to multiple patients who are preparing to file a lawsuit

Jessica Vickers, one of the patients, told the station that her mother and grandmother died from breast cancer and she has diligently gotten herself tested for the disease. She told the station she was skeptical when Harter told her a year ago she tested negative for breast cancer. A year later, her primary care doctor told her the test was inaccurate and she had cancer, the station reported. 

Providence issued a statement stressing that it takes the reports seriously, launching “a thorough investigation” and reaching out to affected patients. The statement also apologized “for any concerns this causes our patients and their families.” 

New lawsuits add alleged victims

Portland law firm Paulson Coletti Trial Attorneys PC brought the initial lawsuits against Pacific Pathology on behalf of six women. Collectively, the suits seek nearly $57 million.

Jane Paulson, an attorney with the firm, recently expanded the earlier suits to include Leica Biosystems Richmond, Inc, an Illinois manufacturer of medical equipment. The lawsuits now allege that Pacific Pathology used Leica’s machines in the false tests and claim  Leica provided Pacific with equipment and supplies that were “defective and unreasonably dangerous in their design and manufacture.” Leica did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Oggys Online.

In December 2023 and January of this year three additional lawsuits were filed by different law firms that, combined, seek more than $18 million. 

Jeanette Votaw and her husband Floyd, residents of Marion County, sued Pacific Pathology and Vogel in late December 2023 seeking $5 million. The suit alleges that in 2019 Pacific Pathology tested a lumpectomy from Votaw’s right breast to determine the level of the HER2, a protein that promotes cancer cell growth. 

The suit states that Votaw’s doctors used a faulty test to diagnose her with fast-growing HER2-positive breast cancer. They directed her to be treated with chemotherapy, a typically very debilitating treatment, as well Herceptin. The drug has side effects that include fever, vomiting, diarrhea and headache.

By October 2022, a representative for Pacific Pathology informed Votaw that her cancer therapy was unnecessary and that they would compensate her, the suit claimed. 

“No compensation has ever been offered,” reads the lawsuit. 

According to the suit, “Votaw suffered side effects from the treatments and continues to suffer permanent injuries from the treatments.” Those include anxiety, insomnia, headaches, heart malfunction, hair loss, memory difficulties, neuropathy and others. 

Votaw’s lawsuit, filed by Salem attorney Dan Schanz, seeks $5 million. 

Evelyn Moreland, a Salem resident, filed a similar lawsuit in January seeking $5.6 million for ongoing physical and mental ailments from undergoing unnecessary chemotherapy. She is represented by Travis S. Prestwich of Salem law firm Swanson Lathen Prestwich. 

Salem firm swallowed by larger companies

Founded in 1985, Pacific Pathology was acquired by Florida-based Aurora Diagnostics in 2016. 

Sonic Healthcare purchased Aurora Diagnostics in 2018 from private equity owners Summit Partners and KRG Capital for $540 million, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Sonic is one of the world’s largest medical diagnostic companies, with more than 40,000 employees. Its stock trades on the Australian Securities Exchange.

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via @jakethomas2009.