A Newport News jury has awarded $3.5 million to an 87-year-old former Hampton resident for injuries sustained after falling from her bed while at Riverside Regional Medical Center in February 2006. Shirley Burrell, then 81, was in the hospital for a hip arthroplasty. After the fall, she suffered a fractured hip followed by a stroke which resulted in permanent disability. Her attorney characterized the award as sending a message to all health providers to take the care of elderly patients seriously. "It's vindication that the elderly aren't throwaways," said Avery Waterman, Jr.
On Wednesday, Riverside expressed its disappointment in the verdict and said it was considering its options for appeal. The risk manager declined an interview request. In a prepared statement, Riverside added that the verdict "does not reflect the high quality of care that Riverside provides to its patients every day." It further noted its national recognition on a variety of quality measures from such groups as Partnership for Patients, Leapfrog and The Joint Commission. The latter, Riverside's accrediting agency, does not require falls to be reported. However, any falls resulting in injury are reported to The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, according to spokesman Peter Glagola. All fall incidents are also reviewed internally.
Burrell's suit claimed the hospital was negligent in not meeting appropriate standards of care for a "high" fall risk patient. It charged Riverside with failure to use preventive measures, such as relocating the patient closer to the nurses' station, a bed alarm, "soft" restraints, or a sitter, a person who stays in the patient's room. It also noted that "for decades" Riverside was aware of "its significant problem with in-patient falls, which historically occur more than every other day."
The problem is not particular to Riverside, said Waterman, who has several suits involving patient falls pending against different health care systems across the state. "It happens in hospitals and nursing homes in every health system. It's a chronic problem in every state nationwide. It's rampant," he said.
In this instance, he emphasized the nurses' failure to activate a bed alarm, a system that requires just a flip of a switch. He noted that nurses are often reluctant to use the technology as its sensitivity can set off false alarms. "Nurses don't like being inconvenienced. Some false positives are a worthwhile inconvenience," he said.
To make his case, Waterman brought in eight nationally known medical experts and presented more than 40 witnesses. One key was the use of images made with a powerful 3T MRI — double the strength and with higher resolution than the standard 1.5 used at Riverside — which highlighted the damage to Burrell's brain with greater clarity. He also relied on a 2006 ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court in a previous case he had against Riverside, which determined that internal "incident reports" not included in patient charts were admissible as evidence.
Burrell, a former Hampton resident, now lives in an institution in Richmond.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times