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Disaster Litigation: Very long lead time. Katrina cases still moving forward in the courts. Lesson? Be prepared for disasters in your area

April 10, 2011

A jury trial set to open this week will decide whether Tenet Healthcare Corporation, one of America’s largest health care corporations, should be held accountable for deaths and injuries at a New Orleans hospital affected by Hurricane Katrina.

The class-action suit is expected to highlight desperate e-mail exchanges, not previously made public, between the hospital and its corporate parent. “Are you telling us we are on our own and you cannot help?” Sandra Cordray, a communications manager at Memorial Medical Center, which sheltered some 1,800 people, wrote to officials at the Tenet Healthcare Corporation’s Dallas headquarters after begging them for supplies and an airlift.

The suit, brought on behalf of people who were at the hospital during the disaster, alleges that insufficiencies in Memorial’s backup electrical system and failed plans for patient care and evacuation, among other factors, caused personal injury and death.  The bodies of 45 patients were discovered at Memorial Medical Center after the August 2005 storm, far more than at any other hospital, and some doctors subsequently acknowledged that they had injected patients with drugs to hasten their deaths. No criminal charges were brought. Last year, a relative of a patient who died filed a civil claim of euthanasia against a Memorial doctor. It was dismissed and is on appeal.   The Memorial staff said they did their best in the face of inhuman conditions.

“The doctors didn’t create that environment. The hospital created that environment,” said Joseph M. Bruno, one of the lead lawyers for the class-action plaintiffs. He said no physicians had opted out of the class and some might testify at the trial in New Orleans. The hospital and Tenet deny the allegations.

One issue almost certain to figure in the trial is the extent to which executives at Memorial and other hospitals understood the possible dangers of flooding. It has been previously reported that Memorial did not act on a 2004 recommendation to move components of its electrical system above the ground floor. New documents raise questions about whether design, maintenance or other factors led to the total failure of backup power after the floodwaters rose.

Even before all power was lost, Memorial’s air-conditioning shut down, by design. American hospitals are required to maintain emergency power systems, but they do not have to support air-conditioning or heating.  According to employees, temperatures inside Memorial soon rose to over 100 degrees, threatening older patients in particular.     Memorial’s hurricane plan assumed that backup power would function for at least three days, but the system failed in less than two.

Many organizations will be watching this trial carefully.  How are you prepared for the disasters likely to befall your organization in all of the locales that you serve?

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/21/us/21hospital.html

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