La. Court: Lack of Hospital Evacuation Plan not Malpractice

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Sept. 5 ruled that allegations that hospitals’ lack of evacuation plans led to injuries or deaths during Hurricane Katrina are not medical malpractice claims. Instead, such cases should be considered under general tort law, the court said.

The ruling eliminates the need to wait for lawsuits against hospitals that lacked evacuation plans during Katrina to be considered by a medical review panel before they can go to trial. Such reviews are required by law in Louisiana in medical liability lawsuits.

It also opens the potential for larger jury awards in such cases. Louisiana has a $500,000 limit on malpractice awards but none in liability lawsuits.

In a 4-3 ruling in Stephen B. LaCoste, et al., v. Pendelton Methodist Hospital LLC (No. 2007-CC-0008 consolidated with No. 2007-CC-0016) the Court reiterated that the “limitations on the legal liability of qualified health care providers in Louisiana, as set forth in the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act (LMMA), are to be applied only and strictly to cases of medical malpractice as defined in the LMMA.”

In the Court’s written opinion, it explained that the case concerned a “civil action against a private hospital for survival and wrongful death damages.” The plaintiffs contend that while a patient in the hospital the decedent “died during a natural disaster as a result of the failure of the hospital to design, construct, and/or maintain a facility so as to provide sufficient emergency power to sustain life support systems and/or to prevent flood waters entering the structure, as well as the result of the failure of the hospital to implement an adequate evacuation plan, to have a facility available for the transfer of patients, and/or to have in place a plan to transfer patients in the event of a mandatory evacuation.”

The Court maintained it “has steadfastly emphasized that the LMMA and its limitations on tort liability for a qualified health care provider apply only to claims ‘arising from medical malpractice,’ and that all other tort liability on the part of the qualified health care provider is governed by general tort law.”

The decision reverses an appeals court ruling that said such claims amount to malpractice because they involve decisions affecting patient care. According to the Associated Press, attorneys associated with the case noted that a judge still could find hospitals liable for malpractice after a trial.

The Court said it agreed with an earlier “district court’s reasoning that the plaintiffs’ allegations of misconduct do not relate to medical treatment or the dereliction of professional medical skill; instead, they relate to deficient design of the hospital, including lack of emergency power, a failure to implement an evacuation plan, and a failure to have a facility to which a transfer of patients could be made.”

A lack of any evacuation plan at all or failure to make sure a building is safe from floods “is not ‘treatment related’ or the result of a dereliction of professional medical skill,” Chief Justice Pascal Calogero wrote.

No medical personnel or health care provider was accused in the lawsuit, Calogero noted. He said “the hospital’s decisions affected all persons present in the hospital whether employee, patient or visitor.”

Justice Jeanette Knoll wrote in the dissenting opinion that the case should be heard as a malpractice claim. She noted that “importantly, [the deceased, Mrs. LaCoste] died from the illness for which she was admitted, and did not sustain any new injuries.”

The AP reported that the ruling could affect as many as 194 claims filed with the Louisiana Patients Compensation Fund Oversight Board, which manages malpractice suits, said the board’s executive director, Lorraine LeBlanc. She said she did not know the number of lawsuits that might have been filed by people who did not file claims with the board.

Sources: Supreme Court of Louisiana,; Associated Press