The family of a man whose death has been ruled a homicide will file a second suit against Easton Hospital today, claiming it withheld information on an internal investigation of former nurse Charles Cullen, the suspect in the death.
The family of Ottomar Schramm, who died at the Wilson hospital in 1998, believes the hospital wrongly concealed information about his death and Cullen's potential involvement, attorney Martin Cohen said.
Those details would have had a substantial impact on the wrongful death suit Schramm's family filed against Easton Hospital in 2001, Cohen added. That suit is in progress.
"I think it's very clear there was an investigation going on," Cohen said. "None of that information was placed before us."
Cohen plans to file a summons today in Northampton County Court, starting a lawsuit accusing Easton Hospital of nondisclosure, misrepresentation and other charges. The full complaint will be filed within three weeks, he said.
Cohen also will ask the court to freeze the assets of the Two Rivers Health and Wellness Foundation, the remaining arm of the nonprofit corporation that ran the hospital at the time of Schramm's death.
Hospital officials said Friday the foundation is liable for anything that happened while it was in charge. The hospital's current owner, Community Health Systems Inc. of Tennessee, is not liable, hospital officials have said.
Easton Hospital officials could not be reached Sunday afternoon for comment.
Cullen, 43, of Bethlehem told police last week he killed between 30 and 40 patients at numerous New Jersey and Pennsylvania facilities during a 16-year nursing career. Cullen has been charged with one count each of first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder of two patients at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., earlier this year.
Cullen has worked at five Lehigh Valley area hospitals -- Warren in Phillipsburg, Easton, Lehigh Valley in Salisbury Township, St. Luke's in Fountain Hill and Sacred Heart in Allentown -- and at the Liberty Nursing Home, Allentown. Schramm's death is the only local one investigators have publicly linked to Cullen. Though he has been named a suspect, Cullen has yet to be charged in the Schramm case.
At issue in the Schramm family's latest actions is "peer review." That's the internal process hospitals use to analyze neglect, negligence or other problems with staff members.
Under Pennsylvania law, hospitals do not have to publicly report the findings of peer review investigations. Cohen said Easton Hospital officials cited peer review in declining to answer some questions about Ottomar Schramm's death.
But Cohen believes the recent homicide ruling on Schramm's death removes any legal shield from the hospital.
"I would think that at this point, since we're dealing with murder, it's not the kind of thing peer review should apply to," he said. "These people have an obligation to the community."
In addition to the new suit, Cohen will file a motion for sanctions in the original case, pressing the hospital again to release more internal information.
Schramm was a resident at Northampton County's Gracedale nursing home in Upper Nazareth Township when he was admitted to Easton Hospital for treatment for a seizure on Dec. 28, 1998. He died three days later.
The family's original lawsuit claims Schramm died because he was given a lethal dose of digoxin, a heart medicine.
The family alleges Schramm received a dose of digoxin nearly four times the therapeutic level, even though no physician ordered the drug and his medical chart made no reference to it.
Northampton County Coroner Zachary Lysek ruled the death a homicide last week, changing his original ruling that the cause of death was "undeterminable."
Cullen's confession last week effectively restarts the original case, Cohen said. The family is seeking financial damages.
"This is obviously going to change the whole case," he said.
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