Mississippi High Court Upholds Verdict in Hospice Death

October 27, 2008

The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a multimillion dollar verdict in the case of a 66-year-old woman allegedly misdiagnosed with cancer then given a lethal dose of painkillers.

The story of Ersel Allen begins in April 2001, when physicians allegedly misdiagnosed her with terminal pancreatic cancer, and advised against surgery. Allen was admitted to Hospice Ministries in Ridgeland on June 12, 2001. She died about five weeks later.

Allen’s life insurance company asked for an autopsy before paying benefits, and her family was shocked when the results showed that she never had cancer, said Dan Mars, an attorney for Allen’s daughter.

“According to the coroner, she had enough medication — Dilaudid — in her to kill an elephant,” Mars said Oct. 24 in a telephone interview.

Dilaudid is a powerful narcotic painkiller often used in palliative and hospice care.

The pathologist who performed the autopsy testified that 6,900 nanograms of the drug were found in Allen’s system — a toxic amount he had never seen in a human being, according to court records.

Allen’s daughter sued the hospice; Dr. William Causey, who worked there; and the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where Allen was allegedly diagnosed with cancer.

UMC settled for $15,000 and the hospice agreed out of court to pay $1 million to Allen’s daughter, Reitha Sanders, according to court records.

Causey, who is in prison for child molestation, lost at trial and was ordered to pay $3.48 million in compensatory damages plus $500,000 in punitive damages. He appealed the verdict.

On Oct. 23, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld compensatory damages but threw out the punitive damages. UMC and the hospice were not part of the Supreme Court case.

Ray McNamara, Causey’s attorney, was out of the office Oct. 24 and did not immediately respond to a message.

In a previous interview with The Associated Press, McNamara said Allen did not have cancer, but said she suffered from other ailments and would have died anyway.

Mars disagrees.

“The Supreme Court made a bold statement that affects the care of elderly,” Mars said. “The defense had argued that there’s no upper limits to the amount of medication that can be given to a patient in hospice care and the court said that is just not correct.”

Patrice Guilfoyle, a UMC spokeswoman, said the hospital won’t comment on litigation. A call to the hospice was not immediately returned.

This is not the first time a hospice has come under scrutiny in Mississippi. The medical director and clinical director of Sanctuary Hospice House in Tupelo were charged earlier this year in a 33-count indictment that stems from the allegedly premature deaths of several patients.

Marilyn Lehman, clinical director of Sanctuary hospice, is charged with 11 misdemeanor counts of practicing medicine without a license. She pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

Dr. Paul White, the medical director, pleaded guilty in June to six counts of aiding and abetting the practice of medicine without a license and one felony count of cyber-stalking. He was sentenced to two years of probation.

The family of at least one woman who died there is suing the hospice.

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