Emergency preparedness suit has nationwide implications for hospitals

How prepared must hospitals be in the event of a natural disaster or emergency? A new lawsuit brought by the family of a patient who died in the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina aims to answer that question.

The family of patient Althea LaCoste alleges that Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital is responsible for her death, claiming that LaCoste died because the hospital was ill-prepared to cope with the after-effects of the storm. According to the lawsuit, LaCoste was subjected to "sweltering heat" and had to have air pumped into her lungs for hours "by hand" because the powerful storm knocked out power and rendered many emergency generators useless. 

The hospital maintains it isn't responsible because Katrina "was an act of God that could not be foreseen." But Cameron Barr, a senior executive with the hospital, had measured the facility's vulnerability to just such an event roughly three years before Katrina struck. 

"The first question is, do we have generators placed to accommodate an emergency flood with 15 feet of water?" wrote Barr, then an executive vice president. "The answer to that question is no." Barr determined that one of the two main generators "would be nonfunctional at about two feet of flood water." He also wrote that in order to adequately prepare (ie: protecting the hospital's power plant, moving the generator), $7.5 million would need to be spent, which never happened.

Robert Wise, a vice president with the Joint Commission, has pointed out that many hospitals nationwide are in similar situations, having to "juggle multiple priorities." It's an especially tricky conundrum considering that raising generators is not mandatory for hospital accreditation. 

"This is a zero-sum game," Wise said. "Who decides it's not important to buy critical machines for the intensive care unit or the operating room versus moving the emergency electrical system?" 

To learn more:
- read this Leagle, Inc. article