Bar for malpractice higher in emergency cases

By Jamie Kelly | May 24, 2016

BLOUNTSTOWN – No lawsuit has yet been filed regarding the December death of Barbara Dawson at Calhoun-Liberty Hospital, but cases involving medical care during an emergency situation have to clear a higher bar than other cases in the state.

“Florida statues set a higher bar for plaintiffs to sue over care provided in an emergency,” Orlando attorney Jeffrey Badgley recently told the Florida Record. “For most malpractice cases, you just need to show that the care provided fell below an accepted and reasonable level. For emergency situations, you have to show the provider acted with reckless disregard for the consequences of their medical decisions.”

Dawson’s death came hours after she was allegedly escorted from the Calhoun-Liberty Hospital’s emergency room in handcuffs. According to a heavily redacted report released by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration, she refused to leave when hospital staff wanted to discharge her, and hospital staff called the police. She purportedly collapsed in the parking lot and was eventually taken back into the hospital, where she died.

The AHCA report found that Calhoun-Liberty failed to follow both its own procedure and the Patient Rights and Care statute by not properly assessing and re-assessing Dawson, and by ignoring her complaints about a medical problem. The agency ordered the hospital to develop a plan to better address patient grievances and to ensure its policies are followed.

Emergency departments are required to treat anyone, regardless of their ability to pay, according to both state and federal laws.

“It's generally considered illegal for a patient to be received into an emergency room and then transferred out when they're not in what's called a stable condition,” Badgley said. “If the patient is in an unstable condition, they need to be treated in the emergency room and admitted for further care if not treating them would cause their condition to deteriorate."

The laws were designed to keep private hospitals from transferring patients who might not be able to pay to public hospitals without first ensuring their safety. But financial pressures still drive hospital decisions, Badgley said.

“It's my belief, from the cases that I do see, that financial pressures and financial decision making affects health care on a daily basis,” he said. “That's why the laws are there, and that's why they still need to be enforced.”

When investigating a case, he said, his office looks at the way the environment of a hospital affects the provider in question.

“In a lot of these cases, nurses and doctors are in the spotlight, but we try to look past the spotlight,” he said. “These people are human beings and are in a system that often times they have no control over, and it's affecting how they make decisions and how they treat patients.”

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