Trial over patient death post-Katrina opens in Orleans Parish

Alejandro de los Rios May 10, 2010, 4:35pm


Opening arguments were made and the first two witnesses took the stand today in an Orleans Parish trial over the death of a patient at Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East during Hurricane Katrina.

Lamar Edwards is suing the hospital and its owner, United Health Services (UHS), on behalf of his deceased mother, Lorraine Johnson, who died just days after the hurricane hit New Orleans in August 2005.

Presided over by Judge Paulette Irons, the case could possibly have an impact on area hospitals plan for disasters.

The plaintiffs argue that Lorraine Edwards died as a result of the negligence of Methodist Hospital and UHS for failing to adequately prepare the hospital in the event of a hurricane of Katrina's magnitude. The hospital suffered a power outage after the fuel pump for an emergency generator flooded and the facility was left without enough supplies to properly sustain its patients for more than one or two days.

Lorraine Edwards had been admitted to Methodist Hospital's intensive care unit on July 26, 2005, for revascularization of her leg due to diabetes complications. That procedure resulted in her contracting gangrene on the same leg. Doctors had to amputate it a few days before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

Lamar and Lorraine Edwards are represented by New Orleans attorneys Val Exnicios, Jennifer Eagan and James Carte and Lorraine Johnson is represented by Gregory Di Leo.

New Orleans attorneys David Bowling, Kathryn Wasik, Ernest Gieger Jr., and Leah Taschek are representing UHS and Methodist Hospital.

In his opening statement, Bowling argued that Edwards' death was not a result of the hospital losing power, but because of her "advanced medical problems" and her "out of control diabetes." The defense also argued Edwards' condition made her a "sit and shelter" patient in lieu of evacuating and enduring any "travel trauma." Bowling went on to say that "only by using hindsight could you find my client responsible" for Ms. Edwards' death.

The opening remarks led to nearly four hours of testimony from the plaintiff's lead witness, former Health Director for the City of New Orleans Dr. Kevin Stevens Sr., who served during Katrina and was also a staff member at Methodist since 1988.

But the most dramatic testimony came from Joan Hess, the corporate representative of UHS who is said by the defense to have the best knowledge of the events before and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Exnicios almost immediately challenged that claim after Hess repeatedly said she did not know the answer to questions regarding the procedures UHS undertook to inspect Methodist Hospital before buying the facility in 2003.

Exnicios' questioning resulted in several dramatic moments in the courtroom. Exnicios' questioned UHS' risk assessment of Methodist Hospital and its hurricane preparedness plans, as well as the choice to defer the decision as to whether to evacuate to the Hospitals CEO, Larry Graham.

"You gambled with patients' lives and UHS lost," Exnicios said at one point. "Katrina came and rendered the facility inoperable."

Exnicios then asked if, as a result of "gambling" with their hurricane preparation, UHS "lost."

"A lot of people lost," Hess responded.

Exnicios later asked if, as a result of UHS miscalculation and loss, the result was that Lamar Edwards lost his mother.

"Yes," Hess responded.

That would turn out to be just the beginning of a long day on the witness stand for Hess, who at one point said she was unsure if she could answer a question within the rules of the court. After Judge Irons dismissed the jury temporarily to discuss the matter with the witness and counsel, Hess apologized because she had not been on the stand in 25 years.

The questioning had to do with UHS' decision to only allocate enough food, water and supplies for 24-48 hours after a hurricane hit despite the fact that Methodist's location in New Orleans East made it susceptible to flooding from storm surges that occur in every hurricane. Hess claimed that there was no way UHS could have known the levees would break and cause such flooding during Katrina. Exnicios replied emphatically that Methodist's hurricane preparation didn't even account for storm surge and called blaming the power outage on the levee failure it "a bunch of malarkey."

"That was such a great performance," Judge Irons responded. "Maybe you could save it for your closing arguments."

Judge Irons also addressed Hess' performance on the witness stand, pointing out that "these are aggressive attorneys" and questioning whether the defense made the right choice in allowing Hess to testify. In the end, Exnicios decided to proceed beyond the question and the jury was allowed back into the court.

During Stevens' testimony, Di Leo pointed to e-mails sent by Stevens as health director to managers of all New Orleans hospitals. The e-mails inquired as to whether their generators would be able to handle 15-feet of floodwater so as to determine whether they could be used as resources during an evacuation. When asked if Methodist Hospital met the requisites for being a "resource hospital" that could take on patients after a hurricane hit, Stevens replied "no."

Bowling also asked to confirm the reason Stevens sent the e-mails. Stevens replied that his duty was not to regulate, but to make sure he had all the information at his disposal in order for different hospitals to be able to work together and get the government resources and aid they require in the event of a hurricane.

Stevens testimony revealed New Orleans' Health Inspector's office had little oversight or command over ares hospitals' evacuation procedures. Though his office set guidelines to determine which hospitals qualified as "resources", Stevens never made an on-site inspection to confirm any hospital's compliance. Stevens said that all but two hospitals in Orleans Parish experienced power failures after Katrina passed New Orleans and most of the city flooded.

Over 100 patients died in New Orleans hospitals in the days immediately after the hurricane. A similar suit filed against Methodist Hospital involving the family of a deceased 73-year-old woman during the same time period was settled out of court in January 2010. The terms of that settlement are sealed.

Judge Irons called the case to recess after Exnicios finished questioning Hess at around 4:50 p.m. and set the continuation for 9 a.m. on May 11.

Orleans Parish Case 2006-09310

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