Jury’s Right to Punish Hospital for Fraud

No doubt Linda Carswell, widow of long-time Texas championship track coach Jerry Carswell, is experiencing some sense of closure following her Sept. 13 win in a Texas court. A jury awarded her $2 million for wrongful death of her husband and for allegations of fraud in how the hospital handled his body. The award – which included $1 million in punitive damages, almost unheard of in Texas—capped a six-year legal battle and exposed callousness of an unthinkable sort.

Coach Carswell had been in the hospital two days for treatment of kidney stones when he was injected with narcotics and died. Instead of sending the body to the Medical Examiner or another third-party, the hospital instead urged Mrs. Carswell – grieving and in shock from her husband’s death – to allow an affiliated hospital to perform the autopsy. No cause of death was every obtained, and the hospital was later fined for destroying blood samples that could’ve further pointed to cause of death.

To make matters worse, Coach Carswell was buried without a heart. Something the hospital still hasn’t explained and Mrs. Carswell is still asking questions about.

The jury agreed this was clearly a case of an attempted cover-up, of fraud.

Most medical injury legal cases begin with an exhaustive and painstaking process of gathering evidence in the form of hospital records, documents, witness testimony and the like. It’s nearly always a battle. Nurses cover for doctors. Doctors cover for interns. Hospitals cover for doctors. Families are given the run-around, and told, “We did everything we could. It just happened.”

However, statistics tell a different story about the possibility of a medical mistake leading to a loved one’s death. A 2004 report from HeathGrades, the independent healthcare quality company, concluded that on average, 195,000 patients died each year in U.S. hospitals from 2000-2003 from preventable medical errors. This was double the number reached by the National Institutes of Health in its 1991 landmark study of hospital and medical errors. The HealthGrades study also showed that since 1991, the health care industry had made little progress in remedying this horrifying situation.

According to the report, “The United States loses more American lives to patient safety incidents every six months than it did in the entire Vietnam War. This also equates to three fully loaded jumbo jets crashing every other day for the last five years. Although not recognized as a cause of death by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in its annual National Vital Statistics Report, if they were, medical errors would be ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and outrank deaths due to diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, Alzheimer’s disease and renal disease.”

But the more important question is how many of these deaths could have been prevented if hospitals focused more effort on instituting best practices and training personnel instead of spending time and money hiding the truth?

The HeathGrades report said these deaths could be reduced by 30% – or 39,000 patients per year – if hospitals would focus on four areas: failure to diagnose and treat, bed sores, postoperative sepsis and postoperative pulmonary embolism.

The jury’s $1 million slap for fraud should have hospitals everywhere rethinking their strategy of hiding the truth at all costs.

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