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Plaintiffs In Lawsuits Over Mysterious Deaths At Missouri Hospital Seek Fraud Ruling

Saint Luke's Health System

The families of five patients who died under mysterious circumstances in 2002 at a Chillicothe, Missouri, hospital and whose wrongful death lawsuits were blocked by the Missouri Supreme Court are trying a different legal tack.

They’re asking the high court to allow them to amend the lawsuits so they can sue the hospital and Saint Luke’s Health System, which now runs it, for fraud.

The unusual request comes in a highly unusual case. The Supreme Court two weeks ago ruled in a 4-3 vote that the lawsuits were barred by the three-year statute of limitations because the lawsuits were filed about eight years after the patients’ deaths.

The families acknowledged the delay but said they had no reason to sue at first because the hospital originally told them their loved ones had died of natural causes. It was only after the hospital informed them years later that foul play might have been involved that they brought their legal actions.

In its decision, the state Supreme Court itself described the circumstances of the case as “tragic and deeply concerning” and the legal outcome as “harsh.” But it said its hands were tied by the law, which makes no exceptions for fraudulent concealment in wrongful death cases.

Adding to the seeming injustice of the case, the court handed down a contradictory ruling the same day in another wrongful death case. The court allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the estranged husband of a woman who was shot to death – although that lawsuit, too, was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The court said the husband could not benefit from his own fraud in concealing the evidence of the crime.

The court majority had a slightly different composition in that case – one of the judges recused herself and was replaced by an appellate judge – than in the hospital case, accounting for the different outcomes. But lawyers said they had never encountered such a situation before.

Referring to the two cases in court documents, Michael W. Manners, a former Jackson County judge who represents the families, said they had reached “polar opposite” conclusions.

“If that has happened in the lifetime of undersigned counsel,” he wrote, “it does not readily come to mind …”

Mysterious deaths

The hospital lawsuits grew out of still unresolved and murky circumstances surrounding the deaths of patients at Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe.

According to the families’ lawsuits, a respiratory therapist intentionally administered lethal doses of insulin and succinylcholine, a muscle relaxant, to the patients, resulting in at least nine suspicious deaths and 18 suspicious medical emergencies in early 2002. The families say that a physician and the hospital’s risk manager both relayed their concerns to the hospital about the therapist but were told to keep their concerns to themselves.

Ultimately the hospital fired the respiratory specialist, Jennifer Hall. An outside investigation identified several unexpected deaths among her patients and the hospital subsequently notified the families of the investigation’s findings. It was only then that they sued the hospital and Saint Luke’s Health System.

Hall was never charged with a crime, although Livingston County Coroner Scott Lindley told The Kansas City Star recently that the cases remain under investigation. In a previous January 2014 interview with The Star, Hall denied any wrongdoing.

Hall’s attorney, Kansas City lawyer Matthew O’Connor, said in a telephone interview that his client categorically denied the allegations.

“I think she’s pleased that that portion of the case is resolved,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court decision. “However, the fact remains that these are false allegations against her. She’s never been a named party in the actions … As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s not one iota of evidence indicating there was any wrongdoing.”

Hedrick Medical Center was acquired by Kansas City-based Saint Luke’s Health System in 2003. Saint Luke’s declined to comment on the latest legal developments in the case, citing a court order in another civil case in Livingston County against the hospital.

In a statement it released after the Supreme Court ruling, however, Saint Luke’s noted that it took over Hedrick Medical Center more than a year after the alleged incidents occurred.

Manners, the lawyer representing the families, also declined to comment. But in court documents, he wrote: “The facts recited in the (Supreme) Court’s Majority Opinion reveal nothing less than grossly egregious conduct by Defendants. This Court’s affirmance of the dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims by the trial courts meant that Plaintiffs lost their causes of action due to the fraud of the Defendants. To not allow Plaintiffs to pursue causes of action for fraud would mean that ‘injustice is the result … It is avoidable injustice.”

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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