Katrina Lawsuit: Pandora's Box of Hospital Liability

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By Minara El-Rahman on January 13, 2010 12:45 PM

The State Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled back in 2007 that a Hurricane Katrina lawsuit involving hospital liability and the care of Ms. Althea LaCoste was not a typical suit against a hospital -- it was not about medical malpractice. Instead, it's about whether or not the hospital's emergency preparedness (or lack thereof) constituted negligence causing Ms. LaCoste's death.

The trial over Ms. LaCoste's death opened this week, and with it, the possibility that hospital liability could be much larger than the caps that are placed on medical malpractice claims. The New York Times reports that the medical malpractice cap in Louisiana is currently $500,000. Without a claim of malpractice, there is no cap on possible damages.

According to USA Today, Ms. Althea LaCoste was on a ventilator in Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital when the hurricane hit. CBS News reports that Ms. LaCoste arrived at the hospital the day before Hurricane Katrina hit trying to recover from pneumonia. She was put on a ventilator. As a result of a power outage from the hurricane, Ms. LaCoste's ventilator stopped working and she passed away. Nurses reportedly tried to save her by handbagging air to her lungs for 15 hours. Her family contends that she should have been evacuated from the hospital.

According to the New York Times, Hurricane Katrina caused more than 100 deaths at hospitals and nursing homes when back up power systems failed and patients were not transferred to other hospitals with power. There are reportedly 200 pending lawsuits.

USA Today reports that the lawsuit regarding Ms. LaCoste could open the door to more hospital liability than anyone imagined. The verdict could dictate just how hospitals react to outside incidents such as weather related emergencies. The lawsuit also brings up the fact that many hospitals have not thought about how to react in the case of an emergency. USA Today quotes Edward Sherman, a Tulane University law professor as saying,  "I'm not at all sure hospitals in the past had thought about their liability for lack of emergency preparedness. This changes that."

This could start a whole new niche of hospital liability: lack of preparedness in an emergency. The hospital claims that the hurricane was an unforeseeable "act of God" and that it would be unreasonable to expect that the hospital could have been prepared for such an emergency. Yet, the New York Times writes how three years prior to the hurricane, a senior executive at the hospital did an assessment of the hospital's weaknesses to flooding. The jury in the trial will have to decide on whether a hospital can be held liable for preparedness. I am sure that hospitals around the country are waiting with bated breath.

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