After nearly 18 years, the families of five patients who died under mysterious circumstances at a Chillicothe, Missouri, hospital have reached the end of the road.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled their lawsuits accusing the hospital of fraudulently concealing the true cause of their loved ones’ deaths were filed too late.
Citing a case it decided more than 60 years ago, the court said the three-year statute of limitations for filing wrongful death cases is not “tolled,” or stopped, by fraud, concealment or other wrongful acts.
Although the families filed separate lawsuits accusing the hospital of fraud after their wrongful death cases were thrown out, the court found that those too were filed too late, leaving them with no recourse.
“The really galling thing about this whole proposition – and it is novel in the common law as far as I know – is that you can profit from your own wrongdoing,” said Mike Manners, a former Jackson County judge who represented the families. “That is something that is so alien to our judicature – that you can lie and get away with it and then turn around and say, ‘Well, you didn’t catch us in our lie in time and therefore you have no recourse because we were successful in deceiving.’”
Adam S. Davis, a lawyer who represented the hospital, said, “Of course we believe it was the correct decision under Missouri law simply because more than five years passed between the first round and second round of cases being filed. And factually, as the Supreme Court noted, they were very similar petitions. So we believe the Supreme Court interpreted the law correctly.”
The lawsuits arose out of still murky circumstances surrounding the deaths of patients at Hedrick Medical Center in February and April of 2002.
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. The families said a physician and the hospital’s risk manager both conveyed their suspicions to the hospital about the therapist but were told to keep their concerns to themselves.
The hospital eventually fired the respiratory specialist, Jennifer Hall. An outside investigation identified several unexpected deaths among her patients and the hospital later notified the families of the investigation’s findings. It was only then that they sued the hospital and Saint Luke’s Health System, which acquired the hospital in 2003.
Hall was never charged with a crime and, through her attorney, categorically denied the allegations.
Hall was convicted of setting a fire at a Harrisonville hospital in 2001. She served a year in prison before her conviction was overturned on appeal. She was found not guilty at a second trial.
The families sued Hedrick and Saint Luke’s in 2010, eight years after their loved ones died, claiming they only learned of possible foul play years after the fact because the hospital had covered up what happened.
After their wrongful death cases were dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds, the families tried a different tack: they sued the hospital for fraud. But the trial court threw those suits out too, finding the previous dismissals precluded the new cases.
The Missouri Court of Appeals, however, said the trial court was wrong to dismiss the suits and sent the cases back for a possible trial.
That last glimmer of hope for the families faded out on Tuesday with the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision, which said the families knew as far back as 2010 and 2011 that the hospital had engaged in fraudulent conduct. Ergo, the court ruled, they filed their fraud suits too late as well.
Manners said that until the wrongful death claims were originally dismissed, the families had no viable claim for fraud because damages are an indispensable element of fraud. So had the families been allowed to pursue their wrongful death cases, they couldn’t have suffered damages as a result of the hospital’s fraud.
“It’s like something out of Catch-22,” Manners said.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.