Disabled Man’s Death Demonstrates Slipper Slope of Malpractice Claims

Gleason v. Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals is a Medical Malpractice case arising out of the unfortunate death of a 47-year-old severely mentally challenged man, Donnie Gleason. Donnie had been a resident of Northwest since December of 1974 and was nonverbal and incapable of self-medicating, arranging or monitoring his own medical assistance. On December 23, 2002, after two earlier unsuccessful attempts, Donnie was transported to Willis Knighton Medical Center (“Willis Knighton”) in Bossier City, to undergo a routine CT scan and EEG after he suffered a seizure. When Donnie returned, he was lethargic and placed in the infirmary.

The documentation of his treatment there showed that Donnie had ingested a foreign object which caused a bowel impaction that precipitated Donnie’s fecal vomiting. Presumably due to his condition, Donnie was unable to expel the vomit and breathed some of the gastric content into his respiratory tract. At Willis Knighton, Donnie was placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit and diagnosed with bowel obstruction, respiratory failure and aspiration pneumonia relating to the vomit aspiration. After a brief recovery, Donnie once again went into respiratory distressed, was placed on a ventilator, and passed. The staff were unable to revive him.

In Louisiana, medical malpractice complaints must first be filed with the Louisiana Patient’s Compensation Fund before a lawsuit may be commenced. That organization’s medical review panel ruled for the defendants in this action – Northwest (intermediate care facility) and Willis Knighton (hospital) and their doctors and physician’s assistants individually. The panel concluded that the evidence did not support the conclusion that Northwest failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care because they found no evidence that Donnie ingested a foreign object while there. After the panel ruling, Donnie’s family filed suit against Northwest and Willis Knighton. They alleged, among other things, that Northwest’s failure to properly supervise Donnie and his treatment and its failure to recognize the seriousness of his condition and the inadequacy of the monitoring of Donnie’s respiratory status.

To establish a claim for medical malpractice, a plaintiff must prove (1) the standard of care applicable to the defendant; (2) that the defendant breached that standard of care; and (3) that there was a causal connection between the breach and the resulting injury. The testimony of an expert is generally required to establish the applicable standard of care and whether that standard was breached, unless the negligence is so obvious that it can be inferred with expert guidance. Expert testimony is not required, but is typically relied upon to prove causation when its determination is not a matter of common knowledge.

Northwest filed a motion to be summarily dismissed from the case because Donnie’s family initially did not designate any expert and Donnie’s family asked for an extension, which the Court granted. Even after Donnie’s family submitted an unsigned affidavit from an experienced nurse, the Court granted Northwest’s motion on the ground that the affidavit was not enough to establish a breach of the duty of care.

After another adverse ruling, Donnie’s family appealed to the Court of Appeals (“COA”) seeking a new trial, arguing that the Court needed no additional information to determine causation. The COA found that a fact issue remained regarding Northwest’s duty to protect Donnie from the danger that could result from his access to an object which the circumstances indicate he may have swallowed, since Donnie was primarily in Northwest’s custody in the days leading up to the discovery of the object. Moreover, the COA thought the matter should proceed to trial since the causal link between the object’s impaction of Donnie’s bowels also still needed to be resolved.

Unfortunately, Donnie’s family’s attorneys initially failed to get their expert to sign her affidavit, which required much procedural maneuvers at considerable expense and at the risk of having the case thrown out altogether. All of these remedial steps also delayed what compensation may eventually come to Donnie’s family and cost them more in legal fees. Competent legal representation is invaluable in an area as technical and regulated as medical malpractice. The need for expert testimony and the sufficiency of claims making out an allegation of medical malpractice call for seasoned skills and a conscientious and personal touch.