Testimony continues in trial over Katrina-related death

Alejandro de los Rios May 13, 2010, 4:37pm


After two more days of testimony in an Orleans Parish wrongful death trial, plaintiff lawyers said they are three witnesses away from resting their case against Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital over a patient's Katrina-related death.

Lamar Edwards sued on behalf of his mother, Lorraine Edwards, who allegedly died when Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East lost power after flooding caused by Katrina affected the emergency power generator's fuel pump. Lorraine Edwards, 58, was located in the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) recovering from a partial amputation of her leg below the knee.

New Orleans attorneys Gregory Di Leo, Val Exnicios, Jennifer Eagan and James Carte and Lorraine Johnson represent the plaintiffs.

Methodist Hospital and its corporate owner, United Health Services (UHS), are represented by New Orleans attorneys David Bowling, Kathryn Wasik, Ernest Gieger Jr., and Leah Taschek.

The third and fourth days of testimony were highlighted by Dr. Frank Minyard, coroner for the City of New Orleans, and Dr. Joel Nitzkin, an expert in public health and healthcare administration.

Both testimonies were critical of the fact that Methodist's emergency power generator did not run the hospital's air conditioning unit in the ICU.

In cross examination, Nitzkin said that the national standard for hospitals doesn't require that air conditioners be hooked up to emergency power, but that "regional provisions" apply in a hot-weather areas like New Orleans.

Minyard provided testimony relating to how Katrina affected the Orleans Parish coroner's office and how the storm's aftermath tied in with the deaths in the following weeks and months in New Orleans. Minyard said he is a strong believer that the stress tied with Katrina exacerbated may peoples' illnesses, leading to their death.

"Everybody who died was related to the hurricane," he said.

Minyard said that, because Lorraine Edwards was "a very sick woman," the added stress of the hurricane, Methodist Hospital's subsequent power failure and an exploratory surgery that had to be conducted in the dark by doctors with flashlights, made it "very difficult" for Edwards to survive the ordeal. He said that "more probably than not" Edwards would have survived had Methodist not lost power and had been treated under normal conditions.

In his testimony, Nitzkin said that it was "completely inappropriate" that Methodist's CEO, Larry Graham, waited until the day before Katrina hit New Orleans to begin making calls as to the availability of ambulances to evacuate his hospital's ICU.

Nitzkin also testified that, after reviewing Methodist's hurricane preparation plans, the hospital failed to communicate with facilities outside Katrina's "cone of influence" in the event that they had to evacuate. Instead, the only hospitals Methodist had ties with could not receive patients because they were also in the path of Hurricane Katrina at the time.

Nitzkin said that Methodist could have made provisions with hospitals a little farther away, either west or north of Louisiana. Nitzkin also said he was "disappointed" to see that Methodist didn't ask for more help from UHS in advance of the hurricane, with another corporate-owned hospital in Dallas available to take on patients.

Bowling challenged the assertion that UHS didn't do enough pre-storm preparation by asking Nitzkin if he knew that UHS had sent tractor trailers to be stationed outside of Orleans Parish filled with air conditioners, generators, fuel, food and other supplies, under orders to enter New Orleans as soon as the stormed passed. Nitzkin said he was aware of the trucks.

Bowling asked how Nitzkin how he could say that UHS didn't do enough when they had supplies ready to go and the only thing that stopped them was flooding on the Interstate-10 and Interstate-610 exchange. Nitzkin pointed out that pre-storm planning would have indicated that flooding was very likely and called having trucks drive into New Orleans with supplies "ill-conceived."

Trial is set to continue May 14 at 9 a.m.

Orleans Parish Case 2006-09310

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