The families of five patients who died under mysterious circumstances in 2002 at a Chillicothe, Missouri, hospital got some bad news three years ago.
The Missouri Supreme Court refused to allow their wrongful death lawsuits against the hospital to proceed. The court said the families had filed their lawsuits too late, five years after the three-year statute of limitations had run out.
Except those families had no reason to sue earlier, because they'd been told their loved ones had died of natural causes. It was only afterward that they learned foul play might have been involved and brought suit.
The facts that gave rise to the lawsuits remain shrouded in mytery.
What’s known is that in early 2002 there was a rash of mysterious deaths at Hedrick Medical Center, which was acquired by Saint Luke’s Health System about a year after the deaths. The families say a doctor and risk manager both took their suspicions to hospital administrators that a respiratory therapist was deliberately administering lethal doses of medication but were told to keep their concerns to themselves.
The families say there were at least nine suspicious deaths and 18 suspicious medical emergencies. An outside investigation came to similar conclusions. The therapist, who had worked at the hospital for four months, was fired, although no criminal charges were ever brought against her.
The therapist, Jennifer Hall, had been convicted of setting a fire at a Harrisonville hospital in 2001, serving a year in prison before her conviction was overturned on appeal. She was found not guilty at a second trial.
The families filed their wrongful death suit against Hedrick in 2010, eight years after their loved ones had died, because they only learned of the possible foul play years after the fact. They claimed the hospital had covered up what happened.
But that wasn’t good enough for the state Supreme Court, which overturned a longstanding Missouri precedent that said fraudulent concealment stops a statute of limitations from ticking until the fraud is capable of being discovered.
What made the decision especially frustrating for the families was that the court, on the very same day, handed down an opinion that reached the opposite conclusion, allowing 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.
So the families of the patients who died in the hospital tried a different tack: More than 14 years after the deaths of their loved ones, they sued the hospital for fraud.
They fared no better with those lawsuits, which the trial court threw out. Even though the new suits were based on a different legal theory than the earlier ones, the court ruled that the earlier outcomes precluded the new cases.
But now, more than 16 years after their loved ones’ deaths, the families may finally get their day in court. On Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals said the trial court was wrong to throw out the fraud suits, and sent them back for a possible trial.
The court’s rationale: It wasn’t until after the Missouri Supreme Court held that the families’ wrongful death suits were barred by the statute of limitations that they suffered damage.
“We may be without a remedy for wrongful death, but there are some states that recognize the cause of action for fraud that causes you to miss a statute of limitations,” says Mike Manners, a former Jackson County judge who represents the families.
Whether the Missouri Supreme Court, where the cases are likely to end up again, buys into that theory is another question. Manners says he's still puzzled by the court’s ruling in 2015.
“That is something fundamentally offensive to our legal system. … I mean, one of the common law maxims is that no one is entitled to profit by his own wrongdoing. That’s just at the core of the common law system,” he says.
The hospital has consistently denied it concealed anything. Adam S. Davis, an attorney for the hospital, says he plans to ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision. If that's denied, he says, he'll ask the Supreme Court to hear the cases once more.
“It feels like Groundhog Day,” he says.
Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren says his office's investigation into the deaths remains open. For that reason, he says, "I won't have any other comment for now."
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies