There has been significant discussion regarding the ‘standard of care’ implications associated with a lawsuit against Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital (and their corporate parent, Universal Health Services of Pennsylvania), in which the family of Althea LaCoste, 73, “alleged that the hospital was negligent for having inadequate emergency power systems, evacuation plans and floodwater protection.”1 These allegations stemmed from the hospital’s generators failing during Hurricane Katrina, which ultimately led to the death of LaCoste (who had been admitted for congestive heart failure and was on a respirator).
So, as many have asked, why is the hospital being held accountable in what seems to be a catastrophic natural disaster in which they did not have control? The simple answer is an overall lack of preparedness and failing to address known shortfalls in risk mitigation. Three years prior to Katrina, the hospital had assessed its vulnerability to flooding, in which it was determined that its generator could not withstand flood waters over two feet. Unfortunately, the hospital never made an attempt to resolve the issue. Ultimately, that lack of action resulted in the 2007 Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that the case was not malpractice, but rather negligence, allowing the family to seek unlimited damages against the hospital in the form of a civil suit. The trial ended late last month “with a confidential settlement in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, leaving the larger legal issues unresolved with a gaggle of similar cases awaiting future juries.”2 In the wake of this settlement, attention is now being focused on the outcome of the trial “for the family of Lorraine Edwards, a 58-year-old woman who died alongside LaCoste at Methodist”2, whose trial is scheduled to start May 10th.
Beyond the upcoming trial, what could this lawsuit, and others like it, mean for organizations and their level of emergency preparedness? When interviewed by Rick Jarvis of USA Today, Edward Sherman, a Tulane University law professor following the case, stated, “The LaCoste lawsuit could make hospitals across the country liable if their power gets knocked out by snowstorms, tornados, or other calamities.” He went on to say, “I’m not at all sure hospitals in the past had thought about the liability for lack of emergency preparedness. This changes that.” Basically, this case, and others like it, will not only impact future case law, but the overall expectations of how organizations prepare and respond to disasters or other disruptive events (and rightfully so).
Whether man-made or natural, disruptive events will continue to impact organizations of all types and sizes. It is not a question of if, but when. This lawsuit, and others like it, demonstrate that (1) the “it’s not our fault…it was an act of God” defense no longer flies, and (2) that all organizations, not just hospitals, must take measures to adequately prepare or they could be held accountable. Just as it wouldn’t be acceptable for a hospital or organization located in California to claim that an earthquake was an unforeseeable event, it’s not acceptable for a hospital located in an area heavily susceptible to hurricanes and floods to acknowledge that its generator “would be nonfunctional at about two feet of flood water”1 and then consciously choose to do nothing about it.
No entity can completely control the events that occur during a disaster – and they shouldn’t be expected to – but they can control how they prepare and respond. Overall, it’s about being responsible and taking a proactive approach as it pertains to preparedness – identifying the risks, assessing the risks, and taking prudent action (commensurate with the risk) to mitigate the effects. Yes, this specific situation and lawsuit applied to a healthcare environment and the death of an individual. However, it’s not a stretch to assume other plaintiffs will use (or attempt to use) this lawsuit as a precedent to pursue monetary awards when their expectations are not met due to a lack of preparedness or the perception that a standard of care is not met.
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