In a blow to Louisiana healthcare providers, the Louisiana Supreme Court said a failure to have adequate evacuation plans after Hurricane Katrina does not qualify as medical malpractice, which could result in providers paying more for wrongful death claims.
On Sept. 5, the high court ruled 4-3 that hurricane-related claims against Louisiana healthcare facilities do not fall under the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act, which means the claims dont need to be presented before a medical review panel, but rather tried in court. It also means healthcare providers who are participants in the state Patients Compensation Fund cant rely on the fund to cover part of the damages.
As a result, providers potentially could be on the hook for more than a $100,000 limit that applies if a court determines the claim is within the scope of medical malpractice.
David Woolridge Jr., an attorney with Baton Rouge-based Roedel Parsons Koch Blache Balhoff McCollister who also is general counsel for the fund, described it as an excess insurer that pays about $100 million per year to claimants as a result of medical malpractice. According to Woolridge, the process works this way: If a judgment states that malpractice occurred, and the provider is qualified in the fund, the healthcare provider would be liable for the first $100,000. After that, the fund is responsible for damages up to $500,000 as well as ongoing medical expenses. Without the protection from the states fund, provider liability is potentially unlimited.
In the Louisiana case that went to the state Supreme Court, the family of patient Althea LaCoste filed a lawsuit in Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans seeking damages from Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital, in New Orleans, and, later, Universal Health Services (which bought a 90% interest in the facility in 2003; the hospital closed after Katrina).
LaCoste was admitted to the hospital on or around Aug. 28, 2005, when she had been recovering from pneumonia and required the use of a ventilator, according to the ruling. The plaintiffs alleged that the hospitals loss of emergency power and its failure to implement an evacuation plan were a direct and proximate cause of Mrs. LaCostes death, it said.
After the Civil District Court determined this did not constitute medical malpractice, the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal overturned the decision, saying the medical treatment LaCoste received did fall under the provisions in the act. The high court subsequently reversed that ruling.
Gregory Frost, a partner with Adams and Reese in Baton Rouge, who spoke on behalf of the Louisiana Hospital Association, said the ruling could dramatically change the direction of other hurricane-related claims, and increase the exposure of the involved hospitals.